December 16, 2010


Paganini: Violin Concerto No. 1; Tchaikovsky: Sérénade Mélancolique; Valse-Scherzo. Midori, violin; London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leonard Slatkin. Newton Classics. $12.99.

Debussy: Préludes (excerpts). Jorge Bolet, piano. Newton Classics. $12.99.

Earl Wild: Grand Fantasy on “Porgy and Bess”; Seven Virtuoso Études; Improvisation on “Someone to Watch over Me”; Piano Sonata. Xiayin Wang, piano. Chandos. $18.99.

Robert Johnson: The Prince’s Almain and Other Dances for Lute. Nigel North, lute. Naxos. $8.99.

Marie-Josée Lord Sings Opera Arias. Marie-Josée Lord, soprano; Orchestre Métropolitain conducted by Giuseppe Pietraroia. ATMA Classique. $16.99. 

Rachmaninoff: Liturgie de Saint Jean Chrysostome, Op. 31 (excerpts); Vêpres, Opus 37 (excerpts). Eva Ericson-Berglund, soprano; Joanna Dobrakowska, contralto; Romain Champion, tenor; Vladimir Miller, bass; Accentus and Eric Ericson Chamber Choir conducted by Laurence Equilbey. Naïve. $16.99. 

Early American Music, 1776-1861. Boston Camerata conducted by Joel Cohen. Erato. $12.99. 

American Spirituals, 1770-1870. Boston Camerata conducted by Joel Cohen. Erato. $12.99.

Scott Wheeler: Songs. Susanna Phillips, soprano; Krista River, mezzo-soprano; Joseph Kaiser, tenor; William Sharp, baritone; Donald Berman, piano. Naxos. $8.99.

Harold Meltzer: Brion; Two Songs from Silas Marner; Sindbad; Exiles. Vocalists, Cygnus Ensemble and Peabody Trio. Naxos. $8.99.

Bruce Wolosoff: Songs without Words. Carpe Diem String Quartet. Naxos. $8.99.

Jonathan Leshnoff: Double Concerto; Symphony No. 1, “Forgotten Chants and Refrains”; Rush. Charles Wetherbee, violin; Roberto Díaz, viola; IRIS Orchestra conducted by Michael Stern. Naxos. $8.99.

Bernstein: Sonata for Clarinet and Piano, arr. William Terwilliger; Sonata for Violin and Piano; Trio for Violin, Violoncello and Piano; Two House Songs, arr. Eric Stern; Four Moments from “Candide,” arr. Eric Stern. Opus Two (William Terwilliger, violin; Andrew Cooperstock, piano); Charles Bernard, cello; Marin Mazzie, soprano. Naxos. $8.99.

Alexandra Pajak: Sounds of HIV—Music Transcribed from DNA. Sequence Ensemble. Azica. $16.99.

Vikings on Vacation. Ensemble Polaris. Bisma Bosma/Pipistrelle. $16.99.

Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6; Prokofiev: Scythian Suite; Berg: Lulu-Suite; Mozart: “Ach, ich fühl’s” from “The Magic Flute.” Anna Prohaska, soprano; Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela conducted by Claudio Abbado. Accentus DVD. $24.99.

Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen (excerpts). Soloists, Cor de la Generalitat Valenciana and Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana conducted by Zubin Mehta. Unitel Classica DVD. $9.99.

     There are so many wonderful ways to give gifts to music lovers this season that it is almost possible to pick the name of a CD out of a hat and simply get the lucky recipient whatever comes up. Several hats, rather – musical tastes do differ, after all, and it makes sense to pick from the right kind of hat so as to have a better chance of coming up with something that the person will really enjoy. One hat could be labeled “traditional classical music,” for example. A fine choice from that would be either of two new Newton Classics CDs of music recorded in the late 1980s. Someone interested in the Romantic violin and in youthful performances by the violinist Midori will surely be charmed by her strong handling of Paganini’s First Violin Concerto, which she plays with real flair in this 1987 recording, and by the warmth and expressivity she brings to two well-known and dark-tinged Tchaikovsky works. A person who prefers the solo piano could scarcely go wrong with Jorge Bolet’s 1989 performance of 16 Debussy Préludes, in which the impressionistic tone painting comes through as clearly as does the virtuosity. Or, for solo pianism of a different kind, there is Xiayin Wang’s Chandos recording of piano works by Earl Wild – himself a formidable virtuoso and a Gershwin specialist. Wild based three of the four works here on Gershwin’s music, for which his affinity is obvious in the loving way he handles the tunes – just as his skill is obvious in the way he develops and varies them (with Wang managing all the challenges very well indeed). The fourth work, Wild’s Piano Sonata (written in 2000), is less immediately accessible, but shows the pianist’s command of form and his skill in constructing a work along largely traditional lines.

     A solo performance with virtuosity of a different sort is Nigel North’s recording of music by Robert Johnson (c. 1583-1633), a Shakespeare contemporary who actually wrote songs and incidental music for the Bard’s plays. Far less known than John Dowland, of whose works North is a champion, Johnson turns out to have had great skill both in dance rhythms and in lyrical expression, creating works in soon-to-be-obsolete forms that look ahead to the Baroque dance suites that were yet to come. North, a largely self-taught lutenist, plays all these works (a number of which he himself reconstructed) with considerable flair and a thorough understanding of performance practices of the 17th century.

     The arias sung by Haitian-born Canadian soprano Marie-Josée Lord are from later times, but she too shows a fine sense of style in music that ranges from the entirely predictable (“Si Mi Chiamano Mimi” from La Bohème and the Habanera from Carmen) to two different Porgy and Bess arias (“Summertime” and “My Man’s Gone Now”) and "Le Monde Est Stone” from the 1978 rock opera Starmania by Michel Berger and Luc Plamondon. Lord’s rich, supple voice will be a treat for opera fanciers. And the vocals on a new Rachmaninoff CD will be especially pleasing for fans of this composer’s music – since the disc presents excerpts from two of his works that are far less often performed than his symphonies and piano concertos. The excerpts from Liturgie de Saint Jean Chrysostome and Vêpres show these to be strongly written, intense religious works that are very much in the Russian tradition (Tchaikovsky also wrote a Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, which is also infrequently performed). The performances here are good enough to make a listener wish to hear the works in their entirety.

     But if all those discs are in the “traditional classical” hat, what else might there be? How about an “American music” hat? Two excellent Erato CDs of early American vocal music offer unusual and very interesting programs. Early American Music, 1776-1861, includes music from the first days of the new nation (“Yankee Doodle” and “Jefferson and Liberty,” for instance), plus a number of works that modern listeners will have encountered rarely, if at all (“Poor Old Maids,” “Bob in the Bed,” “Clavergreen” and others). Joel Cohen directs all 25 works with style, and the Boston Camerata sings them with considerable enthusiasm. The same may be said of American Spirituals, 1770-1870, although here the enthusiasm is appropriately toned down to stay in line with the uplifting message of these hymns and pleas. There are 23 in all here, virtually none of which is well known anymore: “While Angels Strike,” “The Paralytic,” “Christian Race,” “Weeping Pilgrim” and others. This is the type of music that inspired the young Charles Ives, and listeners will be interested in the way the typically simple tunes are combined to good effect with heartfelt words expressing naïve but obviously sincere sentiments.

     The songs of Scott Wheeler (born 1952) have a very different sensibility but are equally moving in their own way. The new Wheeler CD is one of five fine recent releases in the Naxos “American Classics” series, any one of which would make a much-appreciated gift for lovers of modern American music. Wheeler’s songs convey a wide range of expression, often spiritual and nearly always thoughtful. This well-performed CD includes Serenata (1993), Sunday Songs (1999), Heaven and Earth (2007), excerpts from Singing to Sleep (1984), Litany (2006), Wasting the Night (1990), Mozart, 1935 (1997) and Turning Back (2007). There are songs on a new CD of music by Harold Meltzer (born 1966) as well – Two Songs from Silas Marner (2000-01) – but most of the music here is instrumental. Meltzer’s music often has considerable emotional power, although some listeners may find it more interesting than involving. The longest work on this CD, Sindbad (2004-05), is particularly intriguing, and is very well narrated by John Shirley-Quirk. Also here are Brion (2008) and Exiles (2001), the latter including some well-written vocal elements.

     The Songs without Words by Bruce Wolosoff (born 1955) follow, of course, in the tradition of Mendelssohn, but they are subtitled “18 Divertimenti for String Quartet” and in fact constitute an hour-long series of string miniatures. Each has a title, but listeners will have to decide for themselves how well “Blues for Stravinsky,” “The Letter,” “Skunk,” “Creepalicious,” “Cat Scratch Fever,” “Getting Down” and the rest of the names fit the music (the relationship is clearer in some cases than others). The works are very well played by the Carpe Diem String Quartet, and offer an interesting mixture of pop and classical compositional techniques. In contrast, the three pieces on a new Naxos CD of the music of Jonathan Leshnoff (born 1973) are not only classical in structure but also Romantic in temperament. They are tonal, expressive and range from the virtuosic Double Concerto to the attractively speedy Rush to the strongly felt, well-constructed Symphony No. 1. Unlike some modern composers, Leshnoff seems unafraid to embrace Romanticism while still using post-Romantic techniques and harmonies. As a result, his music may be easier than that of some other modern Americans for listeners to hear and enjoy.

     Leonard Bernstein’s “serious” music is not easy for many to hear, even two decades after Bernstein’s death. In addition to his ever-popular stage works, Bernstein wrote a good deal of music that was intentionally rather difficult, as if to prove his bona fides as a composer. Some of this music can be dry and academic, but Bernstein’s chamber music – of which he wrote very little – is effective and interesting. William Terwilliger arranged the Sonata for Clarinet and Piano for violin, and plays it very well indeed on Naxos’ new Bernstein CD – also offering a fine performance of the Sonata for Violin and Piano (which is very early Bernstein, written in 1939, when the composer was 21). The Piano Trio is even earlier (1937) and, if rather derivative, does show Bernstein’s mastery of classical forms. Eric Stern’s arrangements of music from Bernstein’s theater works (Two House Songs and Four Moments from “Candide”) provide a chance to contrast the “serious” chamber music with chamber versions of Bernstein’s work in a more “popular” style – in which, it must be said, there is a good deal more ebullience on display.

     If neither the traditional nor the American musical “hat” seems attractive for gift-giving to a particular person, how about a “crossover” hat? The term is a little odd – “eclectic” would be better, but may seem a touch too esoteric. The point of “crossover” music is mixture – going beyond what composers such as Wolosoff offer by creating pieces that, from the outset, are planned as blends. Alexandra Pajak (born 1987) deliberately mixes music and science to create Sounds of HIV, which uses the genetic code of the virus that causes AIDS as the basis for the sounds played by the Sequence Ensemble. Someone who listens to the entire 54 minutes of the CD has heard the entire genome of HIV. It might be reasonable to ask, “So what?” And it would be reasonable for Pajak to answer, “Because it’s there.” Pajak studied science and music as an undergraduate, and the two fields came together for her when a professor asked her to create a symphony based on DNA. Sounds of HIV is therefore a natural extension of what Pajak has been doing for several years. It is not especially interesting from a purely musical standpoint – some crossover music relies on the listener knowing that it is crossover music in order to have its full effect. But it is an intriguing attempt to find a very modern source for musical inspiration, much as composers for hundreds of years used the medieval Dies irae to inspire their works.

     Vikings on Vacation is a somewhat different sort of crossover, its whimsical title and CD cover reflecting the idea that the music does not fit any category neatly. The 18 tracks here range from arrangements of traditional tunes to a whole series of pieces composed by Kirk Elliott, who also performs (with Ensemble Polaris) on violin, Celtic harp, mandolin, accordions, bouzouki and bagpipes. The list of his instruments, all by itself, gives an idea of just how many different types of music are combined here. Another indication: Ensemble Polaris was founded by Alison Melville, who here performs on baroque flute, recorders and seljefløyte, the last of those being a traditional Norwegian shepherd’s flute (sometimes called “willow flute,” which is what the word actually means). This is music of multiple moods, multiple rhythms and multiple small slices of emotion – hard to pin down and hard to identify as likely to be pleasing to any particular sort of recipient. There is guesswork involved in giving this gift.

     And what about gifts for music lovers who like visuals with their sounds? In that “hat,” gift-givers could put either a symphony performance or (somewhat more logically) something operatic. The Lucerne Festival in March of this year, where Claudio Abbado led the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, featured some well-paced if not especially profound music-making in works by Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev and Berg – plus Anna Prohaska’s attractive performance of Pamina’s aria from The Magic Flute. Like many concerts, this one was a mixture of disparate styles, the idea presumably being to have a bit of something for everyone. Certainly the young musicians play well, Prohaska’s voice is lovely, and the performances are fine. As a gift, the DVD works only if you are sure the recipient will be interested in seeing scenes from a concert featuring this particular musical mix. The exceptionally inexpensive DVD of excerpts from Wagner’s Ring cycle is another matter. The cost is so low that it is almost worth buying it for any lover of Wagner, even though the staging by La Fura dels Baus is distinctively and quite deliberately weird (as are so many Ring stagings nowadays). There are few “big-name” soloists in this production, which is clearly designed to be as big a treat for the eyes as for the ears, if not more so (lots of special effects, colored smoke, strange appliances on stage, performers stacked into pyramids – that sort of thing). Zubin Mehta in fact leads the performance quite creditably, but Wagner’s music scarcely seems to be the focus here – a rather odd state of affairs, when you think about it. But maybe thinking too much about this release is not the point: better to pick it up as something unusual for the Wagner lover who already has several more-traditional Ring performances and who will likely enjoy not only this nontraditional one but also a 30-minute DVD bonus called “Wagner Furioso.” Indeed, whatever hat you pull music out of this holiday season, there will be, or certainly should be, some magic in it.

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