Archive for the “Naxos” Category

8_559363.gifCARTER: Quartets 2, 3 and 4. Pacifica Quartet. Naxos 8.559363. 74 minutes.

The first disc (Naxos 8.559362) of the Pacifica Quartet’s traversal of Elliott Carter’s string quartets consisted of compelling performances of the First (1951) and Fifth (1996) Quartets, the bookends of the composer’s essays in the medium (so far). The current disc completes the cycle in fine form, and the two discs together document Carter’s development both as a quartet composer and as a composer in general.

These “middle” quartets track the composer’s journey through the explorations of the 1950s, the extremities of complexity of the 70s, to the cusp of his late late style at the end of the 80s. The Second Quartet (1959) marks a big step in the development of Carter’s musical discourse, in which the instruments embody individual expressive characters, delineated by unique musical vocabularies. The result is, to my ear, a kind of music that leans heavily on gesture rather than on theme. In this strong and expansive performance, the players of the Pacifica give the gestures of this piece the weight they need for the work to communicate its expressive content.

The Third Quartet (1971) remains one of Carter’s most complex structures, so much so that even some fans of the composer find it merely “complicated”. I like the piece quite a bit, and the performance here is a revelation””the players bring out the lines in each duo more clearly than I’ve ever heard before. I think this reading of the Quartet will cause some to take a new listen to it.

The Fourth Quartet (1986) is the most traditional piece in the cycle, at least in terms of its structure. The by-now-standard-for-Carter partitioning of musical materials between instruments is at the service of a Beethoven four movement structure. At first hearing, this is a far less vital work than the other quartets, but it grows on you, and there is much of value in it. The reading it is given by the Pacifica is strong and expressive.

There is so much for interpreters of these works to explore that I would be hardpressed to call any reading them definitive, but you could do worse than start with the Pacifica Quartet recordings of Carter’s string quartets.

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Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra & Chorus, Antoni Wit


Antoni Wit, artistic director of the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra, continues his splendid survey of the major works of Poland’s Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937) with the much-neglected ballet-pantomime Harnasie. This tale of a brigand chief who storms his way into a rustic wedding and abducts the bride gave the composer the opportunity to employ rhythms and harmonies based on the folk music of the Gorals, the natives of the Tatra Mountains. With its angular melodies and irregular accents, plus its characteristic vigor, this was just the sort of tonic Szymanowski needed to bring the nationalistic agenda of the Young Poland movement to fruition in music. His personal artistic journey, beginning at the turn of the century and wandering through Chopin, Wagner, Scriabin, Debussy and Ravel, with excursions into the Sufi mystics Hafiz and Rumi, had reached its climax. Harnasie became a part of the Polish ballet repertoire after successful stagings in in 1937-1938. Sadly it was too late for the composer, who died of Tuberculosis at Lausanne in March 1937.

Harnasie represents Szymanowski’s apex. He throws some unusual instruments, including blocks, snare drum, whip and xylophone into an orchestral mix already characterized by his unique feeling for rich, complex harmony. The rhapsodic nature of his music is much in evidence in the tableau “The Harnas and the Girl.” Which brings to mind: just what does the title signify? At first blush, we might have taken it for the name of the girl. Actually, a Harnas is a brigand chief, and the Harnasie are his followers. Why not just translate the title? And while we’re at it, why not eliminate the brief vocals for tenor and even the stirring march of the of brigands, sung by the Warsaw Philharmonic Chorus in Tableau 3. The vocal solos add little or nothing, and the chorus could easily be re-scored for the orchestra. My rationale is this: Harnasie needs to be heard more often in our symphony halls in order to secure its place in Szymanowski’s opus. But its opportunities are limited by the vocal requirements and the fact that they are sung in a language not widely spoken outside of Poland.

The other works on this Naxos release are the pantomime Mandragora and the incidental music for the play Prince Potemkin. The former, designed for inclusion in Act 3 of Molií¨re’s play Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, is surprisingly witty and imaginative for a composer in whom I had not previously noticed a sense of humor. As a sparkling neo-classical work, it begs comparison with Richard Strauss’ Bourgeois Gentilhomme Suite and Stravinsky’s Pulcinella. Antoni Wit and the WPO really seem to enjoy this scintillatingly scored music that engages all the resources of the orchestra and includes darker sounding music for a change of pace, possibly referring to the ancient association of the Mandrake root (Mandragora) with black magic.

The Prince Potemkin music did not engage me at first, possibly because I was expecting choice satirical writing. (Evidently, this is not the Potemkin who pulled the wool over Czarina Catherine’s eyes with his pre-fabricated model villages, giving rise to the expression “Potemkinize.”) This music, wholly serious in character, impressed me upon further auditions by Szymanowski’s characteristically luminous writing for the strings, a plangent oboe solo, and an eloquent choral section that is very much an essential part of this score.

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Carter Naxos.gifCARTER: Mosaic; Scrivo in Vento; Gra; Enchanted Preludes; Steep Steps; Figments I & II; Riconoscenza per Goffredo Petrassi; Rhapsodic Musings; Dialogues. New Music Concerts Ensemble/Robert Aitken. NAXOS 8.559614. CD 65 minutes; DVD 50 minutes.

 In addition to an increase in performances marking Elliott Carter’s 100th birthday last December, there were a few new recordings of a substantial amount of the peripatetic centenarian’s recent music.

This Naxos set (already ably reviewed by Jay Batzner[1]) is a valuable addition to the Carter discography, for at least a couple of reasons. It provides high-quality second (and in some cases more) recordings of several works, it’s a very good introduction to Carter’s music of the last 20 years or so, and not least, it includes the first recording of Mosaic (2005, harp and mixed ensemble), one of Carter’s most colorful and directly approachable scores.  

The composer’s late[2] style is characterized by a stronger emphasis on instrumental color for its own expressive value and relative textural clarity (which in many pieces goes hand-in-hand with the emphasis on color). These traits are presented in a new (for Carter) structural looseness that is often manifest in collage-like forms made up of short, overlapping episodes of contrasting music.

“Gorgeous” is not a word one often associates with Carter, but it applies to Mosaic. The solo harp part, played here with great style and flair by Erica Goodman, swoops and dances voluptuously over the range of the instrument. The accompanying ensemble sings and rasps its support and commentary.

The bulk of the program consists of new performances of a handful of the character pieces that are a staple of Carter’s recent career. These are the second (and sometimes third or fourth) recordings of these pieces, which are becoming standard repertoire for their instruments, at least amongst a certain type of performer.

The disc closes with a bright and lively reading of Dialogues (2004, piano and chamber orchestra) another exemplar of the composer’s late approach. David Swan gives a deft and expressive performance of the daunting solo part, and Robert Aitken leads a strong reading by the New Music Concerts Ensemble.

The bonus DVD includes film versions of the performances of Mosaic and Dialogues, as well as a post-concert interview of the composer conducted by Mr. Aitken. The films included some very amateurish effects shots and are unimaginatively shot, but they are valuable in that they show the under-commented-on physicality of Carter performance. The interview includes some of Carter’s more familiar ideas, and is valuable for the newbie in that respect.


[1] Jay also reviewed Ursula Oppens’ recent traversal of Carter’s then-complete piano music, and we pretty much had the same reaction to it.          

[2] Or is it “late late” by now?

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Elliott Carter 100th Anniversary ReleaseElliott Carter 100th Anniversary Release

New Music Concerts Ensemble
Robert Aitken, Director


Scrivo In Vento
Enchanted Preludes
Steep Steps
Figment No. 1
Riconoscenza per Goffredo Petrassi
Figment No. 2 (Remembering Mr. Ives)
Rhapsodic Musings

For many, this disc will instill a reaction without listening to it. If you are a fan of Carter’s output, you will be interested in this disc. If you don’t like his music, you will ignore the CD and walk away. If you are curious about Carter’s music, and don’t have a reaction yet, this disc is a great sampler of his later chamber works. For me, I already have recordings of most of these pieces. All of the performances are first rate, of course. Robert Aitken’s interpretation of Scrivo In Vento is my favorite recording of that work so far. No matter the instrument, everyone approaches this music with confidence of technique and a keen ear for expression. Carter’s music is notoriously thorny and abstract but these performances communicate more than “this stuff is hard to play!”

I am particularly grateful for the recording of Mosaic for harp and ensemble. The opening seconds are almost minimalist in nature with an irregular pulsation. It doesn’t take long, though, before Carter’s abstract lyricism takes over. I find Carter’s post-Symphonia output to be lusciously lyrical. There is a sparseness of texture and attention to horizontal motion that is much easier to digest than his more famous metric modulation output.

The DVD that accompanies the CD is rather disappointing. The footage comes from a performance of Carter’s works in Toronto during 2006. There aren’t many insights that are revelatory in Aitken’s recollections or the pre-concert talk Carter gives with Aitken. The video of Mosaic is covered with cheesy, iMovie-esque mirroring effects which irritate more than fascinate. Dialogues also gets a video treatment but is rather unremarkable. The CD is worth the excellent performances and, luckily, you don’t pay extra for the DVD.

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Dylan Thomas TrilogyJohn Corigliano

A Dylan Thomas Trilogy


Sir Thomas Allen, baritone; Ty Jackson, boy soprano; John Tessier, tenor; Nashville Symphony Chorus; Nashville Symphony Orchestra; Leonard Slatkin, conductor

This is the first large-scale composition that I have heard from John Corigliano in quite some time. Back in the mid-90s, I was really taken with his music. My favorite works were his Clarinet Concerto, Three Hallucinations, parts of his Symphony #1, and the opera Ghosts of Versailles. What I enjoyed most about his music were his vibrant colors and wild textures. His music used, to my ears, contemporary techniques in a very approachable emotional package. This was my perspective as a grad student over a decade ago, please do not substitute it as “the truth.”

All that being said, A Dylan Thomas Trilogy contains precious little of the materials that initially drew me to Corigliano’s music. This sound is much more conservative from just about every aspect and, to my ears, it loses a great amount of personality because of it. Each movement of the 5-part trilogy (two prologues surround the first “real” movement, Fern Hill) is pure Romanticism without any of the techniques, style, or personality that made Corigliano stand out in the first place.

Don’t get me wrong, the whole disc is well performed and the music is lovely. Corigliano knows what he is doing and how to write the music that he wants to hear. It Just sounds as though it could have been written by anyone. Few of the traits that I enjoyed from earlier Corigliano works are present. The second prologue is vibrant and hints at some of the playful moments from Ghosts, as does the opening of the Poem from October movement. It doesn’t take long, though, until the music transitions back to the fairly pedestrian Romanticism that makes up the bulk of this piece.

Is it unfair for me to judge Corigliano’s music this way because I haven’t kept speed with his stylistic evolution? Perhaps. No need to blast me in the Comments section for this. It is merely my opinion, substitute your own as needed. I’ll say it again: the music is very pretty and well performed. I just don’t take anything special from it. I identify the music as attractive, but not memorable. If you are a fan of Romanticism (no neo- prefix needed here), then you will most likely enjoy this disc. If you, like me, still enjoy doing impersonations of his Clarinet Concerto even though I haven’t heard the work in over 12 years, you might want to check out something else.

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Wuorinen1.gifWUORINEN: Ashberyana; Praegustatum; Fenton Songs I and II; Ave Christe (Josquin); Josquiniana. Sarah Rothenberg, Alan Feinberg, piano; Leon Williams, baritone; James Pugh, trb; Mark Steinberg, David Fulmer, vln; Misha Amory, vla; Nina Maria Lee, vcl; Lucy Shelton, soprano; Brentano String Quartet; Charles Wuorinen, conductor. Naxos 8.559377. 61 minutes.

Charles Wuorinen’s rhetorical bark has always been sharper, edgier, than his musical bark. Many of his verbal excesses about the primacy of 12-tone technique and the death of tonality have proven less than prophetic.

In fact, Wuorinen’s own musical development has belied his bellicose statements. Much of his music expresses a direct, modern lyrical impulse. He has a good ear for instrumental color and line. The biggest problem I’ve had with Wuorinen’s music in the past is that I’ve often found his rhythmic style in conflict with his pitch vocabulary””the rhythms feel much more tonal than the harmonies and melodies would seem to suggest.

The accompanied trombone solo that begins the first piece on this Naxos disc, Ashberyana, (written in 2004 for baritone, trombone, string quartet, and piano, on poems of John Ashbery) reveals a composer whose style has resolved the tensions within his musical personality. Or a critic who is hearing better. At any rate, the trombone’s lyrical line (played with style and power by James Pugh), with its fleeting but unmistakable tonal references, is accompanied by sharp, dissonant chords on the piano.

Wuorinen’s text setting is clear, though the vocal line is often more angular than the trombone line, but this is appropriate for Ashbery’s poetry, with its ellipitical imagery and complex structure. Baritone Leon Williams gives a strong performance of the difficult vocal part, and the composer leads Da Camera of Houston in a solid, authoritative performance.

The rest of the program, consisting of a solo piano work (very well played by Sarah Rothenberg), two brief song cycles on poetry by James Fenton (sung with intense conviction by Lucy Shelton), and some Josquin arrangements, is solid and musical. Naxos’ sound is very good, and Sarah Rothenberg’s notes are informative.


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HEGGIE.gifHEGGIE: For a Look or a Touch; SCHWARZ: In Memoriam; LAITMAN: The Seed of Dream. Morgan Smith, Erich Parce, baritone; Julian Patrick, actor; Julian Schwarz, cello, Mina Miller, piano; Music of Remembrance. Naxos 8.559379. 61 minutes.

Music of Remembrance is a Seattle-based ensemble/organization dedication to the creation (through commissions), performance, and dissemination of music whose subject is the Holocaust, especially victims of the Holocaust who were musicians.

This Naxos disc includes first recordings of three memorial pieces, two of which (are Lori Laitman’s The Seed of Dream and Jake Heggie’s For a Look or a Touch) are Music of Remembrance commissions. The Seed of Dream, for baritone, cello, and piano, is a setting of poems by Vilna Ghetto survivor Abraham Sutzkever. The mood is, naturally, dark, but there are often rays of light and hope in Laitman’s direct and lyrical music. Erich Parce sings the vocal line in a rich baritone voice. Cellist Julian Schwarz and Music of Remembrance Artistic Director Mina Miller (piano) provide solid and poetic accompaniment.

Gerard Schwarz’ In Memoriam is a very straight-forward lament. His experience as a conductor (he is currently Music Director of the Seattle Symphony) shows in how well he writes for string instruments. The piece is in three clearly laid out sections, and is ably played by Julian Schwarz and member of Music of Remembrance.

The revelation of the disc, for me anyway, is Jake Heggie’s For a Look or a Touch. Heggie is best known as a composer of opera (Dead Man Walking) and this piece, though not an opera, shows its composer as an artist who knows his way around narrative and drama. For a Look or a Touch (libretto by Gene Scheer) is a story of a Holocaust survivor and his struggle to remember his lover, who died at Auschwitz. It is a romantic and harrowing work, one of the first to deal directly with the persecution of homosexuals by the Nazis. Heggie’s music is eclectic, with touches of romantic jazz along side passages that explore the darker aspects of the story without ever wallowing in bathos. Morgan Smith ably sings the role of survivor Gad, while the role of his doomed lover, Manfred is read by Julian Patrick. The device works, and the piece is very moving. Members of the Music of Remembrance ensemble play Heggie’s music with skill and conviction.

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Ginastera Music for Cello and PianoAlberto Ginastera

Complete Music for Cello and Piano

Naxos Records

Mark Kosower, cello; Jee-Won Oh, piano
Pampeana No. 2, Cinco canciones populares argentinas, Puneí±a No. 2, Cello Sonata

There are a lot of great things about this recording. If you are a fan of Ginastera’s music, this recording is a wonderful collection showcasing all of the rich details that endear his output to me. The music has rich and occasionally edgy harmonies, wonderful rhythmic propulsion, and extremely lyrical melodies. I find Ginastera to be a perfect example of rugged modernism that is still palatable to more conservative musical tastes. Mark Kosower’s tone is rich, earthy, and deep, making it a perfect match to the material at hand. Paired with Jee-Won Oh on piano, Kosower is stellar at finding the inner life of each piece and communicating that life to the listener. Each work is played with just the right amount of power or tenderness, depending on the need. Kosower’s arrangements of the Cinco canciones populares argentinas are equally sensitive and nuanced, making his efforts on this disc a double-threat.

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Urban RequiemUrban Requiem

Youngstown State University
Symphonic Wind Ensemble


Spin Cycle, Scott Lindroth
Introduction and Rondo-Capriccioso, Camille Saint-Saí«ns (arr. Lee Brooks)
October, Eric Whitacre
Urban Requiem, Michael Colgrass
Overture on Russian and Kirghiz Folk Songs, Dmitry Shostakovich (arr. Guy Duker)
Nobles of the Mystic Shrine, John Philip Sousa

Another solid entry for Naxos’s Wind Band Classics series has been made by the Youngstown State University Symphonic Wind Ensemble directed by Stephen L. Gage. Everything about this disc was done well: performance, music selection, programming, the whole works.

The opening track, Scott Lindroth’s Spin Cycle, is one of those colorful, peppy, wildly orchestration works that are so popular among wind ensembles (performers and audiences alike). The title alone tells you what to expect. The piece uses charming amounts of colorful fluff and energy but doesn’t wear out its welcome. The Saint-Saí«ns arrangement replaces the solo violin with flute and clarinet, allowing for some nice timbral shifts and octave doublings. Kathryn Thomas Umble and Robert Fitzer (flute and clarinet, respectively) perform the work in such a way that I don’t miss the violin at all. Nor does this arrangement make me think this work was originally for orchestra. Eric Whitacre’s October is a deceptive piece. The basics of the work are very simple (nice somber tune, mellow mood, well balanced on color and substance) but the execution is much harder than it seems. Intonation traps are abundant and the YSUSWE does an admirable job navigating those traps. The ensemble also does a great job with the work’s overall narrative shape and linear flow.

The meatiest piece on the disc is the 30 minute Urban Requiem for sax quartet and wind ensemble (saxophones are performed by James Umble, Allen Cordingley, Kent Engelhardt, and Joseph Carey). The piece is crazy. There is a sinewy stream-of-consciousness flow to the form. Murky and foreboding passages are followed by spastic and energetic bursts (with little warning). Avant garde riffs give way to comical dance bits. Basically, the whole piece is a series of WTF moments but the overall effect is compellingly performed and expressed. The performance is completely engrossing and well worth every second.

Another arrangement on the disc, Shostakovich’s Overture on Russian and Kirghiz Folk Songs, brings us back down from the wild ride of the Colgrass. Again, this arrangement is well scored and makes the ensemble sound good without making you think they need a big string section. The closing Sousa march is, as they usually have been on this series, a rousing way to finish things off. I’m grateful for the selection of this particular march since it isn’t one that I hear as often as others. Sure, most Sousa marches sound the same, but there are some really nice harmonic twists and some darker brass fanfares in this particular number.

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Schoenberg of NaxosChamber Symphony #2 and more

Robert Craft Collection


Chamber Symphony No. 2, Philharmonia Orchestra, Robert Craft
Die glückliche Hand, Mark Beesley, bass; Simon Joly Chorale; Philharmonia Orchestra, Robert Craft
Wind Quintet, New York Woodwind Quintet

The overall quality of the Robert Craft Collection on Naxos continues with this Schoenberg disc. What interests me are some of the notes included that talk about how Chamber Symphony No. 2 “ought to be the most popular of Schoenberg’s later masterpieces.” The piece gets a wonderful and sultry performance by the Philharmonia Orchestra but I must say I still prefer the first Chamber Symphony. I think the overall maturity of Chamber Symphony No. 2, both in composition and performance, is something that is lost on me. I still prefer the “Richard Strauss on meth” energy of the earlier work. In time, I’m sure that will change.

Die glückliche Hand gets a great and powerful, and overly creepy, performance. Mark Beesley is clearly comfortable in The Man’s overall discomfort and his voice is well tuned to the wacky expressionist angst that surrounds him. The Wind Quintet, a work that is not often performed nor recorded, also gets great treatment for this CD. The notes talk mainly about the speed at which the New York Wind Quintet plays the work (being one of the only recordings or performances lasting under an hour). This is a beefy and thorny work which commands virtuosity on all levels from every performer all the time. The ensemble has a terrific mastery of the piece and they do not make the quintet sound as hard and laborious as it really is. The Wind Quintet could be as hard to listen to as it is to play (and I’m a fan of Schoenberg’s music) but the New York Wind Quintet really takes control and delivers a great performance. At some point, I know that these Craft Collection discs will stop. I hope it isn’t soon…

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