September 23, 2010


Rachmaninoff: Complete Works for Two Pianos. Nina Schumann and Luis Magalhães, pianos. TwoPianists Records. $24.99 (2 CDs).

Alexander Rosenblatt: Gipsy Fantasy after Monti for Violin and Orchestra; Concertino on Two Russian Themes for 4 Hands; Paganini’s Variations; Sonata for Cello and Piano; Piano Sonata No. 3; Two Fragments from the Ballet Suite “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”; Waltzing with Hartmann (after Mussorgsky). Nikolai Tokarev and Alexander Rosenblatt, pianos. Solo Musica. $18.99.

Tre Bassi. Leo Santana, Michael Godard and Hille Perl, basses. Carpe Diem. $16.99.

José Serebrier: Symphony No. 1; Nueve—Double Bass Concerto; Violin Concerto, “Winter”; Tango en Azul; Casi un Tango; They Rode into the Sunset—Music for an Imaginary Film. Bournemouth Symphony Chorus and Orchestra conducted by José Serebrier. Naxos. $8.99.

     In the days of LPs, there were innumerable small and highly specialized record labels offering very carefully targeted recordings for highly specific audiences – from MMO (Music Minus One), which provided orchestral accompaniments that budding soloists could use to practice their concertos, to Library of Recorded Masterpieces, which included bound-in scores of most of its releases and a full separate book reproducing Bach’s original Brandenburg Concertos' scores with its recording of those works. It may seem as if that sort of specialization and repertoire creativity is long gone in the digital age, but somewhat surprisingly, it is not: there are various CD firms (some even still using the name “Records”) that have given themselves highly specialized missions and are carrying them out very well. They do not make, or intend to make, recordings for a large audience – they have very specific focuses, and tend to do an exceptionally good job within their narrow niches.

     TwoPianists Records, for example, is the brainchild of the wife-and-husband team of Nina Schumann and Luis Magalhães, who are not only highly skilled pianists but also very intelligent pickers of repertoire. They say they simply want to offer CDs of music that has inspired them, and that may well be so, but in the process, they are unearthing some wonderful and sadly neglected two-piano works. Their recording of Rachmaninoff’s complete works for two pianos is a perfect example. It includes the very rarely heard two-piano version of the composer’s final completed piece, the Symphonic Dances, whose sometimes lumbering, sometimes eerie rhythms come through very effectively in this recording. The two-CD set also includes both suites for two pianos (op. 5 and op. 17), the Six Morceaux, Op. 11, and arrangements of several short works – most notably the famous Prelude in C-sharp minor, in an arrangement by Rachmaninoff himself (also here are an Ada Brant arrangement of Polka Italienne and Maurice Hinson’s version of the posthumous Russian Rhapsody). This is all interesting music that shows some sides of Rachmaninoff’s pianism that are not apparent from his concertos, and everything is quite well played and recorded.

     There are also two pianists featured on a CD called “Tokarev Plays Rosenblatt,” from the specialized Solo Musica label; and one of the performers is also the composer of the music here – that being part of this label’s approach. Rosenblatt (born1956) graduated from the Moscow Conservatory, and his music is fairly well known in Russia – but as this CD shows, it has been strongly influenced by that most American of musical forms, jazz. Even the two most overtly “Russian” works here – the Concertino on Two Russian Themes for 4 Hands and Waltzing with Hartmann (after Mussorgsky) – partake of jazz influences, and the remaining works are filled with similar inflections. Both Nikolai Tokarev and Rosenblatt himself bring a strong sense of “swing” to these works, which also show – in the piano sonata and Paganini’s Variations – Rosenblatt’s fine grasp of classical forms. Solo Musica’s niche is strong collaboration with composers and performers to present both traditional and unconventional classical music. The Rosenblatt CD, which can be looked at as focusing on post-Rachmaninoff Russian piano works, shows that there is some very interesting material out there for this label to explore.

     Instead of a two-performer focus, listeners get one involving three singers on the Tre Bassi CD from Carpe Diem, a label that was founded by two sound engineers and that records in old churches, monasteries and historic concert halls. The CD’s title plays off the super-popular “Three Tenors” recordings, and the repertoire here partakes of a similar mixture of the traditional and the decidedly non-traditional: among the 14 tracks, there is a Magnificat, there is an Ave Maria, there is a Salve Regina, and there are two De profundis clamavi works, but there are also three pieces by Santana. Like the “Three Tenors” collaborations, this three-basses compendium is more about rich tone, fine vocal quality and resonant sound (the recording is really quite good) than about the specific repertoire presented. It is, thus, a specialty vocal disc for people who want to find out how strong multiple bass voices can sound, together and separately, when recorded in venues that allow the singers’ low range to come through dramatically and to the best possible effect.

     Despite the special focuses of small and little-known labels, it is interesting to notice that a very large CD firm, such as Naxos, has also found a way to make less-familiar music a hallmark of its offerings. Through its “American Classics” and other series, Naxos makes fine performances of little-heard works available at a bargain price – surely with no more expectation of a mass audience for these CDs than the small niche labels have for theirs. A fascinating new José Serebrier CD is a good case in point. Here, as in the Tokarev/Rosenblatt disc for Solo Musica, there is a composer performing his own works; and here too, as in all the niche-label CDs, there is music that will be unfamiliar to most listeners. But it is all very worthy music indeed, and shows just how wide Serebrier’s range is and how his style has evolved over time. His first symphony, written in 1956 when he was 17, has derivative elements but already shows an assured compositional style in which Serebrier is finding his own voice. The CD is, happily, arranged chronologically, so the nuances and growth of the composer’s style can be clearly heard. The Double Bass Concerto, which not only features a fine solo performance by Gary Karr (for whom it was written) but also includes a Shelley poem, the basis of the work, read by actor Simon Callow, dates to 1971 and gets its first recording here. The Violin Concerto (with soloist Philippe Quint) came 20 years later, in 1991, and shows Serebrier’s fully mature style as well as his skill in writing for strings. Two short works from the early 21st century, Tango en Azul (2001) and Casi un Tango (2002), display the composer’s lighter and very rhythmic side, while another first recording – They Rode into the Sunset, written in 2009 and intended for a Bollywood film that was never made – showcases Serebrier’s abilities in tonal writing and in providing a wrapup for a decidedly popular form, the movies (the music was planned for the film’s final scene). Serebrier is a fine conductor at all times, and certainly his work on his own music must be regarded as definitive. More to the point, this CD shows that even today, the world of specialized, targeted recording remains alive and well, within creative major CD labels as well as smaller niche firms.

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