Archive for the “Naxos” Category

Stravinsky piano.gifSTRAVINSKY: Piano Music. Victor Sangiorgio. Naxos 8.570377. 72 minutes.

Victor Sangiorgio’s traversal of Igor Stravinsky’s music for piano solo is engaging on several levels, not the least of which is how the early compositions show the composer struggling to find a voice.

The Sonata in f-sharp minor (1903-04) finds Stravinsky trying (and truth be told, pretty much failing) to stretch his materials out into traditional Sonata length and form. There is a wealth of attractive thematic material in the Sonata, but the form is ill-suited for them.

Much more characteristic and successful are his 1924 Sonata and 1926 Serenade. These well-known pieces, both of which are excellent exemplars of the composer in his neoclassical mode, are given energetic and idiomatic readings by Mr. Sangiorgio. To my ears the best performance on the disc is of the Four Etudes (Op. 7, 1908), where the composer is well on his way to finding himself.

The program is rounded out with the composer’s riffs on more-or-less popular music””Piano-Rag-Music (1919), Tango (1940), and Circus Polka (1941-42). While not all of this music shows Stravinsky at his best or most characteristic, it’s good to have performances of this quality all in one place.


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Elgar Songs.gifELGAR: Part-Songs. Cambridge University Chamber Choir/Christopher Robinson; Iain Farrington, piano. Naxos 8.570541. 76 minutes.

This lovely album highlights one of the many great things about the Naxos label””the release of collections of specific slices of literature at popular prices. Edward Elgar’s music for small, usually unaccompanied, choir makes a great addition to the Naxos catalog.

If I don’t have much to say about this collection, and I don’t, it’s not as dismissal or an indication of disapproval or aesthetic rejection, but only that the music is purely pleasurable to me in a way that makes analysis completely beside the point. Some of my favorite pieces and moments are the whole of “There is a Sweet Music” (No. 1 of Four Choral Songs, Op. 53) and the ravishing upward sweep at the beginning of “The Shower” (No. 1 of Two Choral Songs, Op. 71).

The performances here are expert and expressive, as one would expect of performances of English music by the Cambridge University Chamber Choir. There sound is warm and balanced, and their diction excellent.

Highly recommended to fans of Elgar and to fans choral music.

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Villa-Rojo On the Spanish Classics series, we find an emphasis on the use of string orchestra by Jesíºs Villa-Rojo. Concierto plateresco for oboe and strings, opens with a real ear-catching burst in the orchestra. The rest of the concerto never quite reaches the same provocative color, but the lyricism and beauty (well-played by Hansjōrg Schellenberger, soloist) sustain interest in the piece. The Serenata for string orchestra has a quirky formal structure that plays out a single trajectory through three subsections. Concierto 2 for cello and string orchestra (this is version B) is, to my ears, the most macho sounding piece on the disc. The soloist, Asier Polo, is rough and aggressive. The cello’s lines struggle with the ensemble and fight its way into the primary material. This concerto has a great energy to it that propels the action through each movement.

English Song Volume 17Volume 17 of the English Song Series contains four song cycles by William Alwyn: Mirage and Six Nocturnes for baritone and piano; Seascapes for soprano, treble recorder, and piano; and Invocations for soprano and piano. I found each cycle contained rich melodic content and dramatic meat for the soloists but I found that, all stacked together, the tone of each song cycle rarely changed. Any one of these cycles would be lovely on their own programmed with other pieces. As a single disc, I found the musical materials too similar and static. The Seascapes really leapt off the disc and into my ears, mainly due to the effective use of the treble recorder. Again, each song of each cycle has lovely material and treatment of the material, it was just Alwyn Overload to my ears.

SibeliusThe two Scí¨nes historiques and the King Christian II Suite by Jean Sibelius grace this final selection. I found these pieces very enjoyable and well played by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. The music is a little “Sibelius-lite” to me, without the same depth and repeated listening interest contained in his symphonies. There are some unmistakable Sibelius moments, particularly in the orchestration. Each work is rather darkly scored and there are some great brass-chord-fades-to-growing-activity-in-the-woodwinds transitions that show Sibelius is cultivating some of his personal quirks. My favorite tracks on the disc were the “Festivo” finale from the first Scí¨nes historiques and the gut wrenching “Elegie” from King Christian II.

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Carter Quartets.gifCARTER: Quartets 1 and 5. Pacifica Quartet. Naxos 8.559362. 61 minutes.

I think it is safe to say that most Sequenza21 readers have at least a passing familiarity with the music of Elliott Carter. It’s probably not a stretch to say that most S21 readers (and certainly the writers) have strong feelings about it.

The current disc is the first of a two part traversal of the composer’s string quartets, by the Pacifica Quartet. The Quartet has made a splash with their Carter performances, playing all five quartets in single sittings as well as including them in regular programs.

The two Quartets on this disc were written 45 years apart, and they illustrate two distinct modes of their composer. The First (1951) is in Carter’s expansive, high rhetorical mode. It is a very public statement in what is usually a private medium. (Think the Beethoven of the Rasumovsky quartets, for example.) Its phrases are often long and over-lapping, the sections clearly articulated and the instruments usually reinforcing each other, rather than the oppositional strategies of the Second and Third Quartets.

The Pacifica performance of the piece is long-limbed and taut. The emphasis throughout is on rhythm, and the drama created by the combinations of unison rhythms and starkly contrasted counterpoint. The intensity with which the Pacifica players push the driving rhythms of the Fantasia and Allegro scorevole movements makes the tranquil chords of the Adagio that much more tellingly expressive.

The Fifth Quartet (1995) is an example of Carter’s recent brand of meta-musical postmodernism (the Clarinet Concerto is another example). It is “about” how a string quartet rehearses, with phrases being tried out, passed around, and put aside. In contrast with the First Quartet, it is fragmentary and gestural, with thin textures and hints at ensemble playing. It’s far more condensed, with 12 sections in 21 minutes, as opposed to the 4 sections in 40 minutes of the First.

The Pacifica reading of the Fifth is intimate and shapely, with the fragmentary gestures carrying their full meaning the way people who know each other extremely well can communicate in mere phrases or with a single word. The performance underlines the shape of Carter’s musical gestures and their relationship to each other.

Naxos has provided a fine sonic design for these performances””every detail is clear and audible. The relationships between the instruments are always comprehensible. This disc is an excellent introduction to Carter’s quartets, in part because of the budget price. Highly recommended for fans and newcomers.

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Penderecki Symphony No. 8Krzysztof Penderecki

Symphony No. 8

Naxos Records

Symphony No. 8 ‘Lieder der Vergí¤nglichkeit’, Dies irae, Aus den Psalmen Davids Warsaw National Philharmonic Choir, Warsaw National Philharmonic Orchestra, Antoni Wit, conductor

Just to get all prejudices out in the open, I prefer the earlier coloristic works of Penderecki to the more recent and more conservative symphonies. I fully expected to pop in the Symphony No. 8 (from 2005) and think that Bartok threw away better music. I’m sorry, I try to be tabula rasa regarding reviews, but I can’t help myself sometimes.

Here is the thing: I like the symphony. It functions more as an orchestral song cycle than a symphony, (thank you Das Lied von der Erde!) and is the most compelling synthesis of the “wiggedy-weird” experimental colorist and the neo-romantic symphonist that I have heard. At first, you might think that this was a long lost Berg cycle. As the twelve songs travel by, though, you hear orchestral colorings that make the ears perk up and really listen to what is going on. Very effective stuff.

In contrast, the Dies irae from 1967 sounds dated to me. The gestures and colors aren’t as compelling as some of the other Penderecki works from this time. In many ways, this disc helped me rectify the journey and progression of Penderecki as a composer. Many of the timbral and gestural ideas in Dies irae fall flat or are generally not compelling. I can’t help but be put in Penderecki’s place as a composer and start to think “this style isn’t working for me anymore, I need something else.” Hearing the masterful orchestration and lyrical writing of Symphony No. 8 highlights how Penderecki synthesized his previous experiences into an individual style.

Aus den Psalmen Davids, coming from 1958, stands on the opposite end of the timeline. Here I find the musical ideas and colors more convincing and captivating. The a cappella settings of Psalm 30 and 143 are achingly beautiful (143 has some accompaniment, but not much). The colors swirl, the emotions gush forth, driving percussion and spiky pianos chug along. In many ways, I think this is a Penderecki disc for everyone. Those who love the neo-romantic Penderecki will adore the Symphony No. 8. Those who love the earlier experimental Penderecki will dig the Aus den Psalmen Davids. Both camps may or may not like the Dies irae, which makes it a good central piece on the disc. No matter which Penderecki you like, you will find stuff to enjoy on this disc.

It usually goes without saying that Antoni Wit and the Warsaw National Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir give powerful and definitive performances whenever they perform, but I say it here anyway. Their interpretations and offerings of Penderecki (and the earlier Lutoslawski series) are truly exceptional performances.

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coates.gifCOATES: Symphony 15; Cantata da Requiem; Transitions. Teri Dunn, soprano; Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra/ Michael Boder; Talisker Players; Ars Nova Nuremberg/Werner Heider. Naxos 8. 559371. 59 minutes.

Originality is no longer the coin of the realm in music composition. It’s been over forty years since Charles Wuorinen wonder how you could have a revolution when the revolution before last declared “anything goes”. However, there are still many ways a composer can produce works whose hallmark is a striking originality. Given that anything goes, one avenue towards originality is in the striking juxtaposition of disparate musical elements.

Gloria Coates is a master of this juxtaposition. In his informative notes to this recording, Kyle Gann describes the signature elements of her music:

. . . slow string glissandos. Another is wavery textures of faster glissandos, at varying rates. Another is conventionally tonal chorale writing, often quoting previous music. Another is simple, even marchlike rhythmic patterns, sometimes offset within her favorite 5/4 meter.

What makes this music so compelling is the way these simple, clearly identifiable gestures are put together. Actually, they are often forced together, and it’s the strain of the disparate elements coming together that gives Coates’ music its dark, expressive power.

A fine example of this power is the second movement of the Fifteenth Symphony (“Homage to Mozart”). A wind chorale is gradually overcome by massive, slow glissandos in the strings. Simplicity itself, but indelible nonetheless.

All of the performances on this remarkable program are top notch. Soprano Teri Dunn gives a moving reading of the soprano part in the Cantata da Requiem, a setting of texts by American and German women written during the Second World War. The instrumental ensembles all play Coates’ difficult-sounding music with apparent ease, born of commitment and understanding.

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hartway.gifHARTWAY: Three Myths; Imaginary Creatures; Images of Mogador; Scenes from a Marriage. Pauline Martin, piano; Pamela Schiffer, soprano; Imaginary Creatures String Quartet; Woodland Trio; Catherine Wilson/Robert Conway Piano Duo. Naxos 8.559346. 59 minutes.

James Hartway’s music is accessible, open, and directly expressive. It is extremely well written, revealing Hartway’s sure command of mid-20th century tonal vocabularies. (Some of the richest passages on the disc remind me of Samuel Barber in their harmonic flavor.)

No new aesthetic ground is broken here””you won’t hear anything you haven’t heard before, but that may or may not matter to you. What is here is very well done. The musicians clearly get the music and enjoy performing it.

For what it’s worth, my favorite piece on the program is Three Myths for solo piano. Pauline Martin gives an authoritative account of this rhythmically alive and very listenable suite. The disc as a whole is recommended for those whose taste in the new runs towards the accessible.

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Stravinsky Later BalletsIgor Stravinsky

Later Ballets

Naxos Records

Jeu de cartes (Philharmonia Orchestra); Dances concertantes (Twentieth Century Classics Ensemble); Scí¨nes de Ballet (Orchestra of St. Luke’s); Variations (London Philharmonic Orchestra); Capriccio for piano and orchestra (with Mark Wait, piano and Orchestra of St. Luke’s); all works conducted by Robert Craft.

This disc is the ninth volume of The Robert Craft Collection presenting the music of Stravinsky. The recordings are rereleases but each work sounds great and fresh thanks to the mastering talents of Richard Price.

These later ballets never quite reached the same acclaim as the Big Three or Agon (my favorite and recorded extremely well earlier in the series), but that does not mean that they are undeserving of attention and quality performances. In keeping with the series as a whole, each work is meticulously clear it its recording quality and attention to performance details. The ballets burst with energy and color. Variations gets a wonderfully earthy treatment as opposed to the more common crystalline, abstract, and detached performance. Each event is clear and focused in this dense and terse piece but the crispness does not bring about sterility. It is the best recording of Variations that I know and worth picking up the CD for that piece alone. Mark Wait delivers a lively and commanding performance of the Capriccio. I hope he is the pianist on what should be an inevitable release of the Concerto for Piano and Winds.

In general, I’ve been extremely impressed with the performance and craftsmanship (no pun intended) in all of the Robert Craft Collection recordings, Stravinsky or otherwise. This is off topic, but have you heard the recording of Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony #1 on this series? It really cooks.

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Abe.gifABE: Symphony 1; Divertimento; Sinfonietta. Aleksey Volkov, alto sax; Russian Philharmonc/Dmitry Yablonsky. Naxos 8.557987. 65 minutes.

Komei Abe (1911-2006) is a member of a generation of Japanese composers who came of age with a musical background that was almost entirely Westernized. There is no hint of Japanese music (that I can hear) in this program of orchestral music Abe wrote in the 1950s and “˜60s.

Abe’s music is very straight-forwardly tonal, melodic, and well-formed. It is also lighter than air, and even the more aggressive gestures in the Symphony are pretty friendly. The sharpest movement, with the most bite, is the Scherzo: Andante-Presto of the Sinfonieta, with its thrilling rhythmic accents and brassy outbursts.

Abe’s style is shown to good effect in the Divertimento for Saxophone and Orchestra. Aleksey Volkov gives a silky account of the sinuous solo line and the orchestral accompaniment is lean and supportive.

Good performances and warm sound.

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rochberg 1.gifROCHBERG: Symphony 1. Saarbrücken Radio Symphony/Christopher Lyndon-Gee. Naxos 8.559214. 64 minutes.

George Rochberg remains a much-read and widely-discussed figure in 20th century music. His stylistic journeys (into and out of serialism, through quotation/collage postmodernism, and finally to his own brand of extended tonality) and the voluminous prose that accompanied these changes may be better known than the music itself. If there has been a big increase in performances of Rochberg’s music since his passing in 2005, I am not aware of it.

I’ve always had a lukewarm (at best) reaction to Rochberg’s music, in which I’ve not been able to discern a distinctive musical personality. I’m well aware of the possibility that I’ve experienced the music this way because of my deep disagreement with many of his ideas about music.

It was an extremely pleasant surprise, then, to hear this recording of the composer’s First Symphony (1948-49, rev. 1977 and 2003). It is a fully-realized work that sums up the mid-century American symphonic style and is one of the style’s greatest achievements.

The first movement grabs your attention from the beginning and doesn’t let go. It is built from clearly-etched gestures more than from themes, and these gestures are memorable for their rhythmic drive and muscular profiles. They seem made from post-war American confidence and recall the incisiveness of Stravinsky’s nearly contemporaneous Symphony in Three Movements.

The second movement (“Night Music: Poco adagio; like a slow March”) is a dark, restlessly supple slow movement marked by passages of greater rhythmic activity. In this movement, as in all the others, several instruments are highlighted””a nervously skittering violin solo returns to haunt the proceedings.

The central Capriccioso is a raucous and colorfully lively movement that earns its name””the music is in a constant state of flux. The changes in character come so rapidly, so capriciously that they may seem random and unmotivated. But the movement holds together as a strong musical statement.

Following a now lyrical, now dramatic slow Variations movement, the Symphony closes with a powerfully brash and forceful Finale. As in the earlier movements, the various sections of the orchestra are given their chance to shine. The Symphony’s conclusion is abrupt, expressive, and completely convincing.

The Saarbrücken Radio Symphony Orchestra, under the able direction of Christopher Lyndon-Gee (who also wrote the informative liner notes), is up to the task of delivering this sprawling and difficult work. Naxos gives their performance plenty of sonic room and it and the piece are very well served. This work shoots to the upper regions of pieces I would like to hear in performance, and it gives me incentive to revisit Rochberg’s other music, to see if there’s something I missed before.


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