Grieg: Two-Piano Arrangements of Mozart’s Sonata in D Major, K. 448, and Fantasia for Two Pianos, K. 475; Old Norwegian Melody with Variations. Dena Piano Duo (Tina Margareta Nilssen and Heide Görtz). 2L. $29.99 (Blu-ray audio disc + SACD).
The Nordic Sound: Selections from 15 Recordings. 2L. $29.99 (Blu-ray audio disc + SACD).
Jewish Cabaret in Exile. New Budapest Orpheum conducted by Phillip V. Bohlman. Cedille. $16.99.
American Choral Premieres: Alan Hovhaness, Egon Cohen, Paul Nicholson, Paul French, Easley Blackwood, Robert Kreutz, William Ferris, William C. White, George Rochberg. William Ferris Chorale conducted by Paul French. Cedille. $16.99.
Weber: Concertino for Clarinet and Orchestra; Clarinet Concerto No. 2; Bottesini: Duetto; Debussy: Première Rhapsody; Tchaikovsky: Herbstlied. Richard Stoltzman, clarinet; Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kirk Trevor; Richard Fredrickson, double bass. Navona. $16.99.
Jonathan Sachs: Incantations, Book V; Litanies; Ghost Horses; 5th (S)eason; Sagittarius Rising; Sirian Blue. Navona. $16.99.
Xibus. Boston String Quartet. Navona. $16.99.
The nearly complete demise of record stores, and with it the difficulty of idly browsing and perhaps stumbling across an unusual recording that you had not previously considered buying, puts releases like these at a distinct disadvantage. Unless you know to look for them, you are unlikely to find them, because their attraction lies as much in their packaging or the unusual way they assemble collections of works as it does in the performers and performances. The Norwegian label 2L, for example, offers very unusual packages (in a size that will not fit in all CD storage devices) that is designed specifically for Blu-ray aficionados. The Blu-ray format has not yet taken off in the video arena, even though it has defeated the alternative high-definition format, HD-DVD. But 2L believes Blu-ray’s time has come in the audio field, and each 2L package contains a super-high-quality Blu-ray audio disc plus an SACD of the same music that is, in truth, of equal quality when played on anything but the most ultra-high-fidelity Blu-ray-adapted system. Only if you have a strong commitment to Blu-ray and are willing to pay about $10 more than the typical cost of an SACD will you find 2L’s offerings of interest. And if you are intrigued, you must still consider the repertoire. The Dena Piano Duo plays exceptionally well, but how much interest is there likely to be in Edvard Grieg’s arrangements of two Mozart works for two pianos, K. 448 in D and K. 475 in C minor? The works are small gems in themselves, and Grieg’s treatment of them is certainly of some interest, but how much? Grieg did write one work of his own for two pianos, Old Norwegian Melody with Variations, and it too is very well played here, but it is unlikely to inspire many people to acquire this pricey offering. Actually, Blu-ray lovers may be more interested in 2L’s The Nordic Sound, one of those “compendium” releases that are by definition hodgepodges. This offering includes excerpts from 15 2L recordings, made at various churches and cathedrals in Norway. The sound is quite lovely throughout, and the performances are uniformly good – but they are not really the point. The idea here is to showcase just how good an audio recording can be in Blu-ray as well as SACD format, and this 2L offering certainly does that. If you want your sound at the service of specific repertoire, look elsewhere; but if you revel in sound for its own sake, the 2L releases are certainly worth a look – and a listen.
A couple of new vocal offerings from Cedille, a Chicago label showcasing Chicago-based artists, are of high enough quality to be of interest outside Chicagoland. But they are highly specialized recordings, and unless their topics are ones a listener finds appealing or wants to explore, the quality of the performances will be largely irrelevant. Jewish Cabaret in Exile features music of the Jewish diaspora of the early and mid 20th century, ranging from cabaret songs that reflect on the human condition to songs of the theater and movies. One composer represented here, Viktor Ullmann, was moderately well known in his time; he died in the Holocaust. Ullmann’s Three Yiddish Songs are a highlight of the CD. The rest of the composers here are generally unfamiliar names, but the point is not to focus on the people but to explore ways in which their music expresses such aspects of the diaspora as “the great ennui on the eve of exile,” “transformation of tradition” and “the poetics of exile,” to cite three of the CD’s seven sections.
The vocal music sung by the William Ferris Chorale (founded by Ferris in 1971) will be equally unfamiliar to listeners, and that is by design, since the group’s new CD is called “American Choral Premieres.” Most of the works here are relatively short and fairly straightforward, appropriately but not outstandingly using the musical language of the time in which they were written. Standouts are Four Motets, by the prolific Alan Hovhaness, and George Rochberg’s heartfelt Behold, My Servant. Ferris’ own Lyrica Sacra and Who Am I? by Paul French – who now leads the chorale and for whom Ferris was a mentor – provide a sense of continuity in the music and performers. Everything here is well sung and has a religious flavor; the overall impression is of devout spiritual appeal without necessarily any strong adherence to a particular set of dogma or traditions.
One way an interested listener might stumble upon two new Navona CDs is by searching for performances by clarinetist Richard Holtzman. On a disc called “Phoenix in Flight,” he offers sensitive, warm and beautifully played performances of two of the delightful clarinet-and-orchestra pieces by Carl Maria von Weber, plus three “fillers” that have some interest of their own. Giovanni Bottesini was considered “the Paganini of the double bass,” so it is a trifle odd to feature one of his works on a clarinet-focused CD, but in fact Stoltzman and Richard Fredrickson play the Duetto as equal partners, and the music benefits as a result. Debussy’s Première Rhapsody gives Stoltzman plenty of opportunity to show the warm side of his instrument, and so does Tchaikovsky’s Herbstlied, heard here in an arrangement made by Toru Takemitsu shortly before his death in 1996. Clarinet fanciers will enjoy Stoltzman’s top-quality playing both here and on a CD of some lesser music, by Jonathan Sachs. Sachs is known mostly for his film scores (Toy Story 2, Mr. Holland’s Opus, The X-Files: I Want to Believe and others), but he also works in traditional concert-hall forms, and this CD offers a bit of this and a bit of that. Stoltzman is featured in Litanies for clarinet, violin, cello and piano (1990, revised 2004), and in Ghost Horses for the same instruments plus three voices (1992). The Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra under Carl St. Clair plays Incantations: Book V (2002), and the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra under Kirk Trevor offers Sagittarius Rising (2004). The other two pieces here are the oddly titled 5th (S)eason for two pianos (1993), played by Vicky Ray and Bridget Convey, and one of Sachs’ electronic experiments: Sirian Blue for tape (1978). The diversity of performers parallels the many styles of Sachs’ music, which never attains profundity (and does not really seem to seek it) but which is invariably well made and generally attractive to the ear.
The same is a bit harder to say of Xibus, simply because this crossover CD will sound just fine to fans of some genres but is likely to seem odd to other listeners. The Boston String Quartet mixes elements of classically proficient playing with rock, pop and world music here, including some works with vocals (sung by Giorgia Fumanti and Fionnuala Gill) and one, Like It Is, with rock instrumentation performed by Common Thrill. Ranging from the sacred (Ave Maria) to the decidedly secular (Hey Jude), the CD offers fine performances and interesting (if rather disconnected) repertoire. But unless listeners specifically go looking for something by the Boston String Quartet, and then focus on crossover offerings, this is the sort of CD that it is all too easy to pass by.