August 21, 2008


Rachmaninoff: The Isle of the Dead; Youth Symphony; Symphony No. 1. BBC Philharmonic conducted by Gianandrea Noseda. Chandos. $18.99.

František Ignác Antonín Tůma: Partitas, Sonatas and Sinfonias. Concerto Italiano conducted by Rinaldo Alessandrini. Naïve. $16.99.

Mendelssohn: Prelude in B minor; Rondo capriccioso; “Auf Flügeln des Gesanges”; Three Etudes; Five Songs without Words; Scherzo in E minor; Variations sérieuses; Two Caprices; “Suleika”; Scherzo from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Bertrand Chamayou, piano. Naïve. $16.99.

Tchaikovsky: Valse-Scherzo; Valse sentimentale; Ravel: Tzigane; Chausson: Poème; Kreisler: Liebesfreud; Caprice viennois; Sarasate: Caprice basque; Rodion Shchedrin: In the Style of Albéniz; Franz Waxman: Carmen Fantasy. Yossif Ivanov, violin; Itamar Golan, piano. Ambroisie. $16.99.

      Little of the music on these four new CDs represents the best of which the composers were capable. But listeners who have become jaded by the too-frequent performance of some composers’ acknowledged masterworks will enjoy the lesser pieces here; and those who have tired of hearing the same composers over and over again will enjoy encountering one of whom they likely have never heard.

      Rachmaninoff’s first attempt at a symphony produced in 1891 a single movement in D minor that is distinguished for its propulsive motion and the clear influence of Tchaikovsky, but not much else. Four years later, the composer completed his first symphony – also in D minor – to much better effect, although it too is a largely derivative work. One would not necessarily expect the BBC Philharmonic under Gianandrea Noseda to play Rachmaninoff particularly idiomatically – this composer seems to have written for the unique lushness of Russian orchestras – but in fact these are excellent performances, full of drive, passion and understanding. The Isle of the Dead, the best work on the CD and the latest (1909), also gets top-notch atmospheric treatment in a recording that lavishes attention on details of the composer’s dark and moody tone poem. The symphonic works here do not show Rachmaninoff at his best, but these fine performances show the works themselves at their best.

      The music of František Ignác Antonín Tůma (1704-1774) is virtually unknown today, and it is unlikely that the new CD by Concerto Italiano under Rinaldo Alessandrini will make this Czech composer a household name. But the two partitas, two sinfonias and three sonatas presented here show a composer with a fine sense of form and considerable skill in balancing the instruments of a chamber ensemble. The pieces break no new ground – Tůma was actually better known in his time for his sacred works than for his instrumental pieces – but they will interest listeners who would like to hear music by some of the less-known composers of Haydn’s and Mozart’s era.

      The Mendelssohn CD featuring Bertrand Chamayou mixes familiar and less-familiar works in the pleasant form of a “recital of encores.” There is nothing of great length here (average track length is less than four minutes) and nothing of great profundity. Liszt’s transcriptions of the two songs Auf Flügeln des Gesanges and Suleika are interesting to hear in close proximity to some of Mendelssohn’s own “Songs without Words,” and Rachmaninoff’s transcription of the Scherzo from A Midsummer Night’s Dream is an appropriately light and fleet-footed way to conclude the CD. Chamayou plays everything with a deft touch and understated virtuosity: he does a good job of not overwhelming these slight pieces with prodigious technique. The CD will in fact be of greatest interest to fans of the pianist, since the music itself, however pleasant, is less than compelling.

      Much the same can be said of the CD entitled “Con Passione” by violinist Yossif Ivanov and pianist Itamar Golan. The title explains the selection of pieces (again, mostly short ones) and the intended appeal of the CD; and indeed, Ivanov and Golan play the works quite passionately enough. The music, some familiar and some much less so, is mostly surface-level and pleasing to listen to, emphasizing violin virtuosity rather than any emotional profundity (although the two Tchaikovsky works and Chausson’s well-known Poème certainly tug a bit at the heartstrings). In a sense, both this CD and the Mendelssohn disc by Chamayou are “classical easy listening,” requiring minimal attention as they produce enjoyable sounds that make a more interesting background for everyday life than, say, the sounds of a TV set. This in no way minimizes the quality of the individual pieces on either CD; but in these two assemblages, with little to connect the mostly short works in musical terms, it is hard to see the discs as inviting the sort of serious attention that more-substantial recordings demand.

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