Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Gregori and Stradella well-served by the Capriccio Barok Orchester

 In this release, the Capriccio Baroke Orchestra combines two different, yet complementary composers. Giovanni Lorenzo Gregori is credited as the first to use the term "concerto grosso." It appeared as the title to his opus 2, recorded here. 

His contemporary, Alessandro Stradella, was no less innovative. Stradella's compositions were major influences in the Italian Baroque. 

The bulk of the release is Gergori's ten concerto grossi. The sound is quite varied. Gregori, in anticipation of the Mannheim School, seemed to take orchestration seriously. 

He uses unusual instrumental combinations to great effect. There are even passages, with strings piling on strings, that presage the Mannheim Rocket.

Stradella's works seem to focus more on melody. He was best known as an opera and choral composer. I often caught myself humming along with Stradella's engaging tunes. 

The Capriccio Barok Orchester led by Dominik Kiefer does these works justice. As recorded, the ensemble has a full yet clear sound. The dynamic contrasts in Gergori's music are especially well-handled. My only complaint is that the recording makes the orchestra sound a little distant. But that's a minor quibble. 

Their performances of Gregori's music were both exciting and entertaining. As much, I like to think, as it must have been for the audiences in Lucca, 1698. 

Giovanni Lorenzo Gregori: 10 Concerti grossi, Op. 2
Alessandro Stradella: Sonate, Sinfonie
Capriccio Barok Orchester; Dominik Kiefer, leader
Tudor 7171

Monday, September 27, 2021

Raphael Terroni presents Howard Ferguson's best

With Howard Ferguson, it was always about quality, not quantity. Ferguson was extremely self-critical. As a result, his music only emerged after much deliberation and revision. 

Over a span of thirty years, he wrote only nineteen works. And then he stopped because he felt he had nothing left to say. 

But when he spoke musically, he said plenty. This release features one of his most performed and respected works, the 1940 Piano Sonata in F minor. 

This three-movement sonata builds on the foundations of the English Second Renaissance. Some Vaughan-Williams-inspired harmonies are present, giving the work a British character.

But Ferguson moves beyond that. The sonata remains tonal yet seems unfettered by traditional tonality. Raphael Terroni performs the work with great sensitivity. There's a melancholy undercurrent in a lot of Ferguson's music. Terroni makes the listener aware of it, without letting the emotion overcome the work.

Terroni does a masterful job with the Five Batagelles from 1944. The fast-paced bagatelles (1, 3, and 5) crackle with energy. The slower ones (2 and 4) calm and soothe.

Ferguson's Partita was composed for orchestra. He also wrote a piano reduction of the score, for either two pianos or piano four hands. Vadim Peaceman joins Terroni in a performance of the two-piano version. The pair make a good team. And although I prefer the orchestral version, I enjoyed this performance.

Discovery, Op. 13 is considered one of Ferguson's best works. It was one of Kathleen Ferrier's favorites. Contralto Phillida Bannister delivers a beautifully nuanced performance. Her inflection and phrasing highlight the emotions of the text to great effect.


Howard Ferguson
Piano Sonata in F minor, Op. 8; Five Bagatelles, Op. 9; Discovery, Op. 13; Partita for Two Pianos, Op. 5b
Raphael Terroni, piano
Phillida Bannister, contralto; Vadim Peaceman, piano
Naxos 8.572289

Friday, September 24, 2021

#ClassicsaDay #SymYesNo Week 3

 For the month of September, the Classics a Day team chose a controversial theme. There is a small subset of symphonic works within the classical repertoire that appear misnamed. Most composers choose their titles carefully. But when the title runs counter to expectations, disagreements arise. 

What does the title "symphony" mean? Can a composition be a symphony in everything but name? Or could a work titled "symphony" be a different type of composition in disguise?

For this month's challenge, I included a poll with each post to let the readers decide. Here are the posts -- and the poll results -- for the first week of #ClassicsaDay #SymYesNo (Symphony? Yes/No). 

09/13/21 Vincent Persichetti - Symphony for Band

Persichetti's Sixth Symphony was composed for a wind ensemble. Traditionally, strings form the core of a symphony. Does their absence make this work any less "symphonic?"

Poll results: Yes 0%  No 100%  

09/14/21 Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky - Manfred Symphony

It's his only programmatic symphony. And it's the only one Tchaikovsky didn't assign a number to. Why not? Did even he think this was more of a tone poem than a symphony?

Poll results:  Yes 85.7%  No 14.3%  

09/15/21 Leos Janacek - Sinfonietta

Merriam-Webster defines "sinfonietta" as "a symphony of less than the standard length or for fewer instruments" So what do we make of this work that's a standard length and uses more instruments than a standard orchestra?

Poll results: Yes 50% No 50%    

09/16/21 Gustav Mahler - Das Lied von der Erde

The story goes that Mahler avoided titling this a symphony, as it would have invoked the "curse of the ninth." So instead, the title suggests an orchestral song cycle with "symphony" in the subtitle. But did he fool anyone?

Poll results: Yes 66.7% No 33.3%   

09/17/21 Maurice Ravel - Daphnis et Chloé

Ravel called this ballet score a choreographic symphony. But then he also made two orchestral suites from it, as one does with ballet music. So is the original really a symphony, or a series of ballet numbers?

Poll results: Yes 0% No 100%   

Thursday, September 23, 2021

Witold Maliszewski Symphonies -- Treasures from Two Nations

I think Witold Maliszewski qualifies as a national musical treasure for not one, but two countries. He made enormous contributions to both Poland and Russia. Not just as a composer, but also as a teacher, conductor, and administrator. It's a remarkable tale. 

As a youngster in Poland, Maliszewski studied with Russian composer Mikhail Ipplitov-Ivanov. He then went to Russia. There he studied orchestration with Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov and musical forms with Alexander Glazunov. 

These composers provided Maliszewski with a solid foundation for his own work. But Maliszewski had another talent.  He was an able administrator and a passionate teacher. 

He moved to Odessa where he founded a music conservatory (only the fourth in Russia). There Maliszewski developed a thriving classical music scene within the city. He also taught, conducted, and managed to write a seminal textbook on harmony. 

It all came to an abrupt end in 1921. The Bolshevik's rise to power meant a rise in anti-Polish violence. Maliszewski returned to Poland, where he started over. He joined the Warsaw Conservatory and helped organize the Chopin Piano Competition. He also reorganized the State Music Conservatory system. Russia's loss was Poland's gain. He also taught Witold Lutaslawski, one Poland's greatest composers of the 20th Century.

And all the while Maliszewski composed. His music does credit to his teachers, as it does have a certain Russian quality to it. Yet Malieszweski shows an independent voice that goes beyond that foundation. 

Maliszewski's first three symphonies were composed in Russia. They're full-bodied late-Romantic works. And while one can hear the influence of Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov, there's more. Maliszewski's harmonies have a fresh, exotic, and decidedly un-Russian sound to them. 

His motifs are well-constructed, and the symphonies unfold in a straightforward manner. Maliszewski's last symphony, No. 4, is titled "To the Newborn and Recovered Homeland." It celebrates his Polish heritage.  Maliszewski uses his folk-inspired material in a sophisticated manner. It's a beautifully written work. And it stands in stark contrast to the three previous "Russian" symphonies. 

The Jozef Elsner Opole Philharmonic Orchestra gives these works some fine performances. The ensemble sound is big and robust. Maestro Przemyslaw Neumann keeps the energy level high. Under his direction,  Maliszewski's music maintains momentum and purpose. 

Also included are some of Maliszewski's shorter orchestral works. They show him equally at home with small-scale pieces.

I had not heard a note of Malieszewski's music before auditioning this release. I was hooked right from the opening of the first symphony. And that experience continued with the rest of Malieszewski's symphonies. A great collection by a dual-nation national treasure!

Witold Maliszewski: Symphonic Works
Opole Philharmonic Orchestra; Przemyslaw Neumann, conductor
DUX 1716-18
3 CD Set

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Ensemble Mark Rothko deliver with Heitor Villa-Lobos chamber works

A colleague of mine absolutely loves Heitor Villa-Lobos. Whatever classical music subgenre you name, he'll cite a Villa-Lobos composition for it. And then he'll assert it's one of the best. 

The thing is, he's usually right. From symphonies to string quartets, Villa-Lobos has both quantity and quality. 

And that quality is present even in his outlying compositions. All the works on this release are "one-offs." And all have their own charm and appeal. 

Villa-Lobos wrote his only string trio in 1945. He effortlessly spins the three lines out over a half-hour composition. Sometimes the lines combine, sometimes they separate. Implied harmonies trick the ear into hearing more than three instruments. 

The Quinteto Instrumental for flute, violin, viola, cello, and harp was written in 1957. It was two years before Villa-Lobos' death and seems to harken back an earlier time. Villa-Lobos met Darius Milhaud in 1918 and admired the music of Claude Debussy. This quintet (to me) has a French Impressionist cast to it.

The Ensemble Mark Rothko renders some fine performances. For this recording, the members play in different combinations. But the ensemble blend is consistent in quality.

If you're ready to move beyond Villa-Lobos' Choros compositions, give this album a listen. The unusual grouping of instruments is refreshing. And of course, these compositions are as well-constructed as any of his other 2000+ works. 

I haven't asked my friend about duos for flute and cello, but I know what he'll say. "Villa-Lobos wrote one, and it's great." After hearing it on this recording, I can only agree.

Heitor Villa-Lobos: String Trio and Other Chamber Works
String Trio; Duet for violin and viola; Assabio a jato for flute and cello; Quiteto Instrumental for flute, violin, viola, cello, and harp
Ensemble Mark Rothko

Friday, September 17, 2021

#ClassicsaDay #SymYesNo Week 2

 For the month of September, the Classics a Day team chose a controversial theme. There is a small subset of symphonic works within the classical repertoire that appear misnamed. Most composers choose their titles carefully. But when the title runs counter to expectations, disagreements arise. 

What does the title "symphony" mean? Can a composition be a symphony in everything but name? Or could a work titled "symphony" be a different type of composition in disguise?

For this month's challenge, I included a poll with each post to let the readers decide. Here are the posts -- and the poll results -- for the first week of #ClassicsaDay #SymYesNo (Symphony? Yes/No). 

09/07/21 Benjamin Britten - Cello Symphony

Britten named it "symphony" to reflect the equal roles of soloist and orchestra. But the definition of a concerto is soloist(s)+orchestra. And it has cadenzas. So is this really a symphony, or a concerto?

Poll results: Yes 50% No 50%

09/08/21 Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov - Antar

Rimsky-Korsakov originally titled and published this as his Symphony No. 2. But then he renamed it a symphonic suite, a programmatic work telling the story of Antar. But what is this four-movement work really?

 Poll results: Yes 50% No 50%

09/09/21 Ernest Bloch - Symphony for Trombone and Orchestra

Bloch didn't label this 17-minute work a concerto. He felt that the soloist and the orchestra shared equal roles. And yet it's often played in recital (with piano reduction). In this setting, the trombone is the soloist, and the piano the supporting instrument. So is this really a symphony or a concerto?

Poll results: Yes 50% No 50%

09/10/21 Roy Harris - Symphony for Voices on Poems of Walt Whitman

Harris was an innovative composer of symphonies. This work is for a capella choir. Can it be a symphony without instruments (specifically strings)? Or is it really an expansive song cycle?

 Poll results: Yes 50% No 50%

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Adalberto Maria Riva returns with more Woelfl

Pianist Adalberto Maria Riva returns with more engaging piano sonatas by Joseph Woelfl. Woelfl was a friend of the Mozarts and a colleague of Beethoven. The two appeared occasionally together in piano battles in the early 1800s. 

Keep that relationship in mind when you play this release. The very first movement of the very first work on the album sounded very familiar. 

Woelfl published his Op. 6 set of three sonatas in 1798. The opening to his Sonata No. 1 in A minor, Op. 6 sounds very much like the "Moonlight" sonata -- which Beethoven composed three years later.

Woelfl's opening is similar, but he doesn't take it in the same direction as Beethoven. Rather, the music has a lighter, more elegant Mozartian resolution. Still, it's a great way to start an album. 

The two other Op. 6 sonatas lean even further into the Mozart camp. That's not to say they're derivative. Woelfl simply uses the piano techniques of the day to support his own melodies -- and they work quite well. 

Much different is his Piano Sonata in D major, Op. 58. Written in 1811, it has a thicker texture and much fuller sound. And yet there's a lightness to the music that suggests Woelfl didn't have Beethoven's fire. Stylistically, I'd place Woelfl somewhere between Ferdinand Ries and Muzio Clementi.

Riva performs with dexterity and charm. His light touch adds to the elegance of Woelfl's music. Nis nuanced phrasing also gives the music its emotional depth. 

I hope there's a third volume. Woelfl gives us a hint of what Mozart might have written, and an alternative to what Beethoven did. 

Joseph Woelfl: Piano Music, Volume Two
Adalberto Maria Riva, piano
Toccata Classics 

Monday, September 13, 2021

Christopher Gunning Symphony 5 and String Quartet 1 an interesting pairing

Signum Classics continues their survey of Christopher Gunning's music with a mix. This release features an orchestral and a chamber work. But there is a connection. Both works show Gunning's growth as a composer. And they show his willingness to challenge himself. 

Gunning composed his fifth symphony as his sister's health declined. She was to die before he completed the work. According to Gunning, the symphony represents "one's journey from birth to death." 

The symphony is dedicated to the memory of his sister. Hers seems to be the life journey Gunning was portraying. 

And that's what makes this recording is so compelling for me. Gunning is conducting a first-rate orchestra, and he knows exactly what he wants. And the Royal Philharmonic responds to his direction. 

This is an intricately constructed symphony. It works when everything aligns properly. And when everything hits with just the right intensity and articulation. And in Gunning's hands, it does.

The journey is more intellectual than emotional, but it's a satisfying one, nevertheless. 

The String Quartet No. 1 showcases Gunning's ability to fully exploit the potential of his material. In this case, it's three notes -- C, D, and G. The twenty-four-minute work grows out of those three pitches. Gunning explores the relationship between these notes and their implied harmonies.

It's a modern-sounding string quartet, but not a modernist one. The Juno Quartet delivers a fine performance. Their playing brings out the music's emotional rather than intellectual content. And that's how it should be. 

Christopher Gunning
Symphony No. 5- Royal Philharmonic Orchestra; Christopher Gunning, conductor
String Quartet No. 1 - Juno String Quartet
Signum Classics

Friday, September 10, 2021

#ClassicsaDay #SymYesNo Week 1

 For the month of September, the Classics a Day team chose a controversial theme. There is a small subset of symphonic works within the classical repertoire that appear misnamed. Most composers choose their titles carefully. But when the title runs counter to expectations, disagreements arise. 

What does the title "symphony" mean? Can a composition be a symphony in everything but name? Or could a work titled "symphony" be a different type of composition in disguise?

For this month's challenge, I included a poll with each post to let the readers decide. Here are the posts -- and the poll results -- for the first week of #ClassicsaDay #SymYesNo (Symphony? Yes/No). 

09/01/21 Anton Webern: Symphony Op. 21

Webern labeled this piece a symphony, and he used classical forms in its construction. But it's only for a small number of instruments and is just 10 minutes in length. So is this work "symphonic" enough to deserve the title. Is it a symphony? 

Poll results: Yes 66.7% No 33.3%

09/02/21 Claude Debussy: La Mer

Debussy named this work "Three Symphonic Sketches." He did so to avoid having it considered a symphony by audiences and critics. But is it actually a symphony in form and fact? 

 Poll results: Yes 25% No 75%

09/03/21 Ethel Smyth - Serenade in D

Thanks to the conductor Talia Ilan for this example! Smyth may have titled this work "serenade" to avoid the harsh gender-based criticism a symphony would be sure to attract. So is this four-movement work actually a symphony in disguise? 

Poll results: Yes 100% No 0%

Thursday, September 09, 2021

French Music for the Bassoon -- a varied and satisfying collection

If you get this release, be sure to read the liner notes. They explain the origin of the bassoon from the Rennaissance curtal. These two double-reed low-register instruments existed side-by-side for almost a century. 

Only in the 1700's did the bassoon finally supplanted the curtal completely. And that's the era featured in this recording. 

This is an extensive collection of French music composed for the bassoon. The first disc pairs Michel Corrette and Joseph Bodin de Boismortier. 

Corrette's "Les délices de la solitude" seem to have been pedagogic compositions. But they're well-written. The bassoonist encounters many technical challenges. But they're all in service to the melody. 

Boismortier was more concerned with popularity than pedagogy. His bassoon sonatas are elegant, refined, and good-natured. There's plenty for the soloist to do, but it doesn't seem to be on the same technical level as Corrette's works.

Disc two features the six Op. 24 bassoon sonatas of Francois Devienne. Devienne was a virtuoso flutist, and his knowledge of wind instruments is on display. 

These works were composed around 1790, well into the time of Mozart and Haydn. They do have the same elegance of line that those composers showed. And the music lies so well on the bassoon! These are beautifully crafted works, indeed.

The third disc is a collection of instructional sonatas by Etienne Ozi. Ozi was a bassoonist and knew what he was about. This collection came out in 1803 and presents a wide range of techniques for the player to master. 

What impressed me most about these pieces were the choices of instruments. The bassoon is accompanied by a cello. Two low register instruments playing together could sound like mud. But Ozi expertly keeps each instrument separated. The melody is easy to follow, as is the bass line. 

Danny Bond performs with a copy of a 1765 French bassoon. That's significant. Some of these works have some awkward passages for a modern bassoon. But they work well on the instrument they were written for. 

Bond plays with a warm, singing tone. His rapid passagework is impeccable, tossing off trills and mordents like nobody's business.      

French Music for Bassoon
Michel Corrette, Joseph Bodin de Boismortier, Francois Devienne, Etienne Ozi
Danny Bond, bassoon; Robert Kohnen, harpsicord; Richte van der Meer, cello
Accent 3 CD Set

Wednesday, September 08, 2021

Benjamin Carr Piano Music - American Through and Through

It's easy to forget that American classical music didn't begin in the mid-20th Century. Europeans brought their musical traditions with them to the new continent. After the American Revolution, some composers worked to develop a new style of music for their new nation. Benjamin Carr was one such pioneer.

Carr was born in London and studied organ with Charles Welsley. He immigrated to American in 1793. He settled in Philadelphia and set to work creating a musical empire. 

Carr was organist and choirmaster at two of the city's largest churches. He gave music lessons and established one of America's earliest music publishing houses. He organized and conducted concerts. And he wrote music -- a lot of music.

This release collects hours of Carr's piano pieces. It presents a snapshot of life in the Federalist Period. Most of Carr's compositions were for amateurs. As in England, genteel American families had a pianoforte in their homes. Playing the instrument was an important skill for middle and upper-class young ladies. 

Although the music may be simple, it's not simplistic. In his six sonatinas, for example, Carr develops his material as skillfully as Haydn. (It's no accident they resemble Haydn's piano sonatas). 

The Preludes, Op. 13 present some challenges for the player. They sound as if Carr transcribed them from his famed organ improvisations. They may have been inspired by Bach, but I'd say it's likely Carl Philipp rather than Johann Sebastian. 

Carr was looking for an American style. Often he incorporated American tunes into his music. His most popular work, the Federal Overture used "Yankee Doodle" as a starting point. It also mixes in other tunes of the day, such as "Oh Dear, What Can the Matter Be." 

"Yankee Doodle, An Original American Air with Variations" takes the tune through some innovative changes. I think this would make a great companion piece to Charles Ives' "Variations on America."

Kirsten Johnson has done an in-depth study of American music. Her catalog includes recordings of piano music by Arthur Foote, Amy Beach, and James Hewitt (one of Carr's contemporaries). She understands the style and the creative drive behind Carr's music. 

This might not be a release to listen to from start to finish. But every piece has its own delights. I recommend dipping into this treasury time and again. This is real American music by a real American! Sure, he was an immigrant, but that's part of the American character, too.   

Benjamin Carr: Piano Music
Kirsten Johnson, piano
Centaur CRC 3862-65
Four CD set

Tuesday, September 07, 2021

Jan Paderewski's "Polonia" Receives a Proper Performance

Is it possible to tell the history of a country in music? Jan Paderewski thought so. He loved his native Poland -- so much so he eventually became its prime minister. But before that, he composed his massive Symphony in B minor, "Polonia."

The work commemorates the 40th Anniversary of the January Uprising. In 1863 Poles rebelled against Russian troops occupying the country. It was unsuccessful, but it marked the emergence of Poland's national identity. 

The country was still under occupation in 1903 when Paderewski wrote this symphony. It's a work of deep emotion, and Paderewski conveys it most effectively.

Paderewski created his own soundscape for this symphony. In addition to a massive orchestra, the score also calls for organ, three contrabass sarrusophones, and a tonitruon. 

The contrabass sarrusophone is a single-reed brass instrument. It's similar to a bassoon, though with a much lower range and more powerful sound. The tonitruon was a percussion instrument designed by Paderewski to generate wind sounds and thunder.

The inclusion of these instruments gives the work the full power and dramatic impact Paderewski intended. The Lviv National Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra directed by Bohdan Boguszewski serves up a superb performance. 

I suspect more than a few of the musicians in this ensemble share the composer's deep love for his country. And that love can be heard, I think, in their performance. 

Even if you're not familiar with the events depicted in this symphony, you can get caught up in the emotional journey. And what a journey it is. 

Highly recommended.

Jan Paderewski: Symphony in B minor "Polonia"
Lviv National Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra; Bohdan Boguszewski, conductor



Friday, September 03, 2021

#ClassicsaDay #ClassicalSummer Week 5

Summer is the time of music festivals, which is why the Classics a Day team opted to make it August's theme. The idea is to post performances from summer festivals, either past or present. Some of these events have been going on for decades (if not centuries) so there's a lot to choose from.

But there are also challenges with this theme. Not every festival shares its performances online. Some only offer promotional excerpts. Here are my posts from various festivals for week four of #ClassicalSummer

08/30/21 Three Choirs Festival, 1927

HMV made this recording of Herbert Brewer's Nunc dimittis in D. It features the three combined choirs and the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by the composer. It was the first time the festival had been recorded.

08/31/21 Edinburgh International Festival, 2010

William Berger sings "Revenge Timotheus Cries" from Handel's "Alexander's Feast"

Next month -- something new!

For the month of September, the Classics a Day feed will be a little more interactive. Some works in the symphonic repertoire generate debate. Some works titled symphonies don't seem to fit the description. Other orchestral works, though not titled as such, seem to be symphonies in every aspect save the title.

We'll be posting these controversial works, and taking a poll. Is it a symphony, yes or no. Each Friday in September I'll publish my weekly summary of posts as usual. I'll also include the poll results for each post. Join us then for #ClassicsaDay #SymYesNo.

Wednesday, September 01, 2021

Upper Austrian David Trio Does Namesake Justice

First off, about the ensemble's name. "OÖ. David-Trio" is an abbreviation for the Oberösterreichisch (Upper Austrian) David Trio. As their name implies, this trio specializes in the music of Johann Nepomuk David. 

They're equally at home with the music of other 20th Century composers, such as Webern and Schoenberg. And they perform the classic string trios of Beethoven, Brahms, and Schubert.

David is their jam, though. And that's apparent with this release. The trio performs the four trios of David's Op.33. They also play his String Trio in G major.

David's style had many inspirations -- Bach, Brahms, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, and Debussy. His mixture of those influences gives his music its unique character. And that's especially plain in this string trios. 

The sound is pared down to three instruments -- violin, viola, and cello. For David, all three had equal standing. And that opened up a world of possibilities for combination and contrast. And it also meant the music was laid bare. Weak ideas couldn't be bolstered with fancy orchestrations.

David's ideas are plenty strong. And these trios make for compelling listening.

David published the Op. 33 trios in 1948. The best way I know how to describe them is post-atonal. That is, the melodies often rely on chromatic twists and turns. They also tend to avoid triadic outlines. 

But there's still an underlying tonal foundation to these trios. And that gives these works their forward motion.

The OÖ. David-Trio does credit to their namesake. These are thoughtful and sensitive performances. This is intimate chamber music performed intimately. 

I've heard David's symphonies and liked them very much. This music, though, seems more personal. And that made me enjoy it even more.  

Johann Nepomuk David: Five String Trios
OÖ. David-Trio