June 25, 2009


Korngold: Violin Concerto; Overture to a Drama; Much Ado About Nothing—Concert Suite. Philippe Quint, violin; Orquesta Sinfónica de Mineria conducted by Carlos Miguel Prieto. Naxos. $8.99.

Prokofiev: On Guard for Peace; The Queen of Spades—Symphonic Suite arranged and elaborated by Michael Berkeley. Irina Tchistjakova, mezzo-soprano and narrator; Niall Docherty, boy soprano; Royal Scottish National Orchestra Junior Chorus, Royal Scottish National Orchestra Chorus and Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by Neeme Järvi. Chandos. $18.99.

Harold Schiffman: Symphony No. 2, “Music for Győr”; Ninnerella Variata; Variations on “Branchwater”; Blood Mountain Suite; Overture to a Comedy. Katalin Koltai, guitar; Győr Symphony Orchestra conducted by Mátyás Antal. North/South Recordings. $12.99.

Marilyn J. Ziffrin: Moods; Sonata for Piano; Elizabeth Bell: Arecibo Sonata; Rami Levin: Passages; Rain Worthington: Hourglass; Tangents; Dark Dreams; Always Almost. Max Lifchitz, piano. North/South Recordings. $12.99.

     Well-played, largely unknown music can be wonderful to discover in recorded form – CDs provide an opportunity to hear pieces rarely, if ever, programmed in concert halls. But other works, no matter how well played, tend to fall a bit flat on CD, no matter how often you listen to them. None of the music on these four CDs could charitably be called “great,” but two of the recordings are worthy of discovery for at least some adventurous listeners – although the other two repay one’s attention less well.

     Erich Wolfgang Kongold (1897-1957) is best known as a film composer, and his works certainly have the sort of immediate melodic appeal and Romantic-era emotionalism that helped him fit well into Hollywood. His Violin Concerto, in fact, is built around a number of his film tunes. But despite this less-than-exalted provenance, it is an effective, interesting work and a genuine showpiece – if a rather superficial one – for an accomplished violinist such as Philippe Quint. Quint plays with enthusiasm and élan, never trying to elevate the music to heights that it does not seek or achieve, but making it quite effective within its limited emotional range. The Orquesta Sinfónica de Mineria plays well, if not particularly distinctively, under its music director, Carlos Miguel Prieto, both in the concerto and in Korngold’s early Overture to a Drama, which shows good command of sonata form but is not in fact especially dramatic – although it is an impressive work for a 14-year-old. Korngold’s Much Ado About Nothing suite is considerably more interesting, progressing in five movements from a fine scene-setter of an Overture to a witty and virtuosic concluding Hornpipe. The most interesting movement, called “Dogberry and Verges,” is a funeral march right out of Mahler – who was impressed with the young Korngold and clearly influenced him.

     The music on the new Chandos Prokofiev CD is decidedly lesser stuff in the composer’s output, but may be worth exploring for those familiar with Prokofiev’s better-known (and better) works. On Guard for Peace, the composer’s final choral work, is strictly a political composition in Socialist Realist style. The 10-movement oratorio is accessible, bombastic, appropriately celebratory of the Soviet Union’s military strength and eternal vigilance, and easily forgettable – a well-put-together propaganda piece. As for The Queen of Spades, it is only more-or-less Prokofiev. The suite heard here is based on film music that Prokofiev created in 1936 but that he stopped writing when Stalin’s regime halted production of the movie. British composer Michael Berkeley took the relatively paltry remains of Prokofiev’s work, expanded and orchestrated them, and produced a half-hour suite that sounds, basically, like fairly undistinguished film music. Prokofiev would probably have done better himself had he been given the chance; but this is all we are ever likely to hear of this particular music. Neeme Järvi leads the Royal Scottish forces with skill in both these works, but neither piece is much more than a curiosity – the CD gets a (+++) rating and will be of interest mostly to those seeking completeness in their Prokofiev collections.

     Two new releases from North/South Recordings get (+++) ratings, too. Both offer solid performances of not-very-memorable music from composers who do not have a great deal to say but have some skill in saying it. The works of Harold Schiffman, a student of Roger Sessions, have interesting parts but are less than convincing when taken as a whole. His second symphony, written last year, was inspired by the Hungarian city of Győr and is well played by that city’s orchestra under Mátyás Antal, but it is more pedantic than loving. Blood Mountain Suite, also from 2008, is a transcription of an earlier song cycle and is affecting without profundity. The remaining three works on this CD are earlier: Ninnerella Variata (Varied Lullaby) dates to 1956 and shows a good command of orchestral color; Variations on Branchwater (1987), for guitar and orchestra, has little of the U.S. South about it even though it was inspired by that region’s fondness for “Bourbon and branch,” but it has some effective writing and pits the guitar (well played by Katalin Koltai) nicely against the ensemble; and Overture to a Comedy (1987), written for a never-completed comic opera, is pleasant and light enough, if scarcely bubbly.

     Pianist Max Lifchitz performs sensitively on his CD of works by American women composers, but none of the featured pieces is especially distinctive. Marilyn J. Ziffrin’s Moods (2005) and Sonata for Piano (2006) are well structured but not very distinguished. Elizabeth Bell’s Arecibo Sonata (1968, revised 2005) is more interesting, with some challenges both for the pianist and for listeners. Rami Levin’s Passages (2002), designed as a work expressing mixed emotions, has effective elements but as a whole is a bit scattered. The four pieces by Rain Worthington, written between 1991 and 2001, also explore varying emotions, mostly superficially but with some melodic skill. All the works on this CD are pleasant rather than intense; there is an overall mildness to the recording that makes it interesting enough on a first hearing but that is unlikely to bring listeners back to it repeatedly.

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