CD Release Reviews by Donald Venezia – February 18 2012

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February 18, 2012 by Admin

CD Release Reviews By Donald Venezia

February 18, 2012

CHAMBER – The Twilight of the Romantics, Cedille Records

This is a new release by Cedille Records out of Chicago that contains the work of two composers that I’d never heard of. I have no idea where the Orion Ensemble FOUND this music, but I’m very glad they wanted us to make the acquaintance of Walter Rabl and Josef Labor.

Briefly, Walter Rabl was born in Vienna on November 30, 1873. As  a child Rabl studied piano and became quite proficient, later moving to Salzburg to study composition and music theory with J. F. Hummel, who was the director of the Mozarteum at the time. After graduating with honors from the Kaiserlich und Königlich Staatsgymnasium (Royal and Imperial State School) in 1892, Rabl, by the age of 25, had accepted the position of coach and chorus master at the Royal Opera in Dresden and was soon conducting the works of Mahler, Goldmark, Richard Strauss and others. He retired from conducting in 1924 to become an accompanist and coach for noted singers, including his wife, Hermine von Kriesten.

The story of Rabl’s Clarinet Quartet in E flat, Opus 1, is an interesting one. Completed in 1896 and submitted for a competition held by the Vienna Tonkünstlerverein (Musicians’ Society), Rebl’s work was chosen as the first prize winner. (A work by Alexander Zemlinsky was chosen third.) Johannes Brahms, who was the honorary President of the Tonkünstlerverein, was so taken by the work he immediately suggested to his publisher, Simrock, that the work be published. The following year Simrock came out with Rabl’s Opus 1 (on this recording), Opus 2 (Fantasy Pieces for Piano Trio), Opus 3 (Four Songs) and Opus 4 (Four Songs).

The music itself belies the youth of its composer. It’s very well composed, VERY melodic, sweet in a Schumann/Brahmsian sort of way, and leans more toward looking back into the nineteenth century than looking ahead into the twentieth. The first >movement is marked “Allegro moderato” and begins with a clarinet melody that could be Schumann or it could be Brahms, but in fact it’s all Rabl. The violin takes over the melody, hands it over to the cello, and we’re off on a beautiful romantic journey. Rabl even uses the same compositional technique Brahms employed with great success, the hemiola, which is a feeling of three against two. The second movement, “Adagio molto,” begins very delicately with a funeral march, runs through a mazurka, has a triumphal march and then ends as quietly as it began, all the while being played exquisitely. The “Andantino un poco mosso,” otherwise known as the third movement, begins in the same way Brahms began the second movement of his Second Symphony, with that same feeling of gentle rocking. It is only a little more than two minutes long, leaving us wanting more. Then the “Allegro con brio” bursts upon the ear, a fitting finale to a gem of a work that should have never languished so long after that competition a little more than and hundred years ago.

Left blind due to smallpox as a child, Josef Labor overcame his disability to not only become Royal Chamber Pianist to King George V of Hanover (who was also blind) but to also become the piano teacher of Arnold Schoenberg and Paul Wittgenstein. (For those of you who may not know the name of Paul Wittgenstein, he was a pianist that lost his right arm in World War I and continued his career as a left-handed pianist only, commissioning works by Ravel and Prokofiev, among others.)

Labor’s Quintet in D, Opus 11 for Clarinet, Violin, Viola, Cello and Piano is a perfect match for the Rabl on this recording. The opening “Allegro” shows a very well crafted work with more forward-looking key relationships than Rabl’s quartet, but still being cast in the Romantic mold. The colors that Labor writes for the instruments throughout the movement are just glorious.

As with the Rabl, the second movement (“Allegretto grazioso”) has the feeling of Brahms throughout the movement, conversations gently swaying back and forth between the clarinet, the strings and the piano, always set in different combinations. The third movement (“Quasi Fantasia: Adagio”) is a brief (3:16) introduction to the fourth movement (“Tema con Variazioni: Quasi Allegretto”), which is a delicious exploration of how many different ways the variations can be orchestrated within the framework of this combination of instruments. Labor’s fertile imagination supplies us with many different moods, keys and rhythmic changes before the final chords bring this enjoyable piece to its conclusion.

The playing of the Orion Ensemble is “tight” (meaning that they not only play all the notes together but they also phrase together, breathe together and feel the music together) and is just magnificent throughout. They enjoy the music they’re playing and believe in it as well. The sound of the CD is warm and rich, and makes you feel as though you’re actually at the performance. If you enjoy chamber music, or if you’re just a Romantic at heart, these two composers will keep you returning to this music for extended listening pleasure. Warmly recommended, and let us hear more from these composers in future recordings.

CDR 90000 088
UPC 7 35131 90882 6


COPLAND – Appalachian Spring, Music for the Theatre, El Salon Mexico – Harmonie Ensemble, Steven Richman conducting

Bridge is a small record label run by David and Becky Starobin. They have some wonderful recordings, including many taken from The Library of Congress. Although this recording, released in 2004, is not one of them, it’s a treasure none the less.

Steven Richman opens the recording with the seldom heard “Music for the Theatre.” The five movements are “Prologue,” “Dance,” “Interlude,” “Burlesque” and “Epilogue.” Richman and his Harmonie Ensemble beautifully shape the different moods and feelings of these musically diverse movements. “The Burlesque” reminds one of the “Times Square” segment from Leonard Bernstein’s “On the Town.”

We move to the “Ballads for Violin and Piano,” which were to be used for a planned violin concerto for Isaac Stern and begun in 1957. Of the two of these pieces, which were edited by Phillip Ramey and Bennett Lerner, the real find is the second, the “Moderato.” For me, the first of the two, the “Andante,” isn’t as developed as the second, and the second, the “Moderato,” is short but is packed with power, beauty and lyricism. In many respects it’s reminiscent of the Barber violin concerto, which was written in 1939 and premiered in 1941. These are wonderful performances by Eugene Drucker on violin and Diane Walsh on piano.

The “Elegies for Violin and Viola” were inspired by the suicide of poet Hart Crane and written in 1932. Short works packed with emotional depth, these pieces belong more with the compositional sound world of Copland’s Piano Concerto and Symphony with Organ.

The most unusual work on this recording is the arrangement of “El Salon Mexico” by Arturo Toscanini. Arturo Tocanini needs no introduction — one of the conducting giants, he was incredibly myopic. There are wonderful photographs of Toscanini in front of his beloved NBC Symphony with the score to his nose because he couldn’t see. So naturally, he had to memorize everything to be able to give the musicians the cues they needed from the score.

What Toscanini often did was arrange pieces of music to play at the piano so that he could study them, which is probably where this arrangement of “El Salon” comes from. I know of no recording ever made of the work with Toscanini and the NBC, so I can only surmise that he was thinking of doing a recording. Also, I’m sad to say, I don’t know if there was ever a performance of the “El Salon” by Toscanini, because when you hear this working version he arranged (as performed by Diane Walsh) there’s a great amount of care taken to capture the feel and the music.

Ms. Walsh’s performance is terrific! For example, just listen closely at 2:12, just after the first main dance theme, and you can hear the gentle piano arpeggios! I love this work, and I love this performance. I must have played it 30 or 40 times, and I never tire if listening to Ms. Walsh’s playing! The first draft of the “Ballet for Martha,” which Ms. Graham called “Appalachian Spring,” was written for thirteen instruments, and that is the performance with which Mr. Richman and his ensemble finish the CD. I’ve been privileged to perform this version a few times, and while this is not the first recording of this score, there is much here to recommend it. The blend of the woodwinds in just gorgeous. You really can’t tell where one instrument ends and one begins; the balance is exquisite. Mr. Richman takes great care in how he shapes the music, down to the lengths of the notes! Here, too, I’ve listened to this performance quite a few times, and the more I listen to what Mr. Richman has achieved, the more I hear Beethoven’s Symphony No 6, “The Pastorale,” which takes place in one day, from sun-up to sun-down. I know that’s Mr. Copland’s intention and it’s wonderfully portrayed right here in the recording.

I love these performances, and I’m not the only one who feels so strongly about this recording. Andrew Farah-Colton in the September 2004 issue of Gramophone writes,

“The disc is filled out with freshly conceived, tenderly expressive and superbly played versions of “Music for the Theatre” and the original 13-instrument version of the “Appalachian Spring” suite. How exquisitely Steven Richman has the Harmonie Ensemble New York shape the accompaniment in the “Interlude” of the former work, allowing one to marvel at the deftness of Copland’s scoring. Bridge’s vivid recording bathes the proceedings in a perfectly clear and flatteringly warm sonic light. Very highly recommended.”

Bridge Records 9145 (UPC 0 90404 91432 2)


Richter in Paris, Live at the Palais de Chaillot, October 1961.

One of the most important pianists of the second half of the Twentieth Century was Sviatoslav Richter. Born in the Ukraine on March 20, 1915, Richter mastered the piano by the age of eight, but by the age of fifteen had temporarily abandoned the piano for the conductor’s baton, becoming the conductor for the Odessa Opera and Ballet Theatre. Richter and his family had moved to Odessa from the Ukraine. Returning to the piano after a few years of conducting, Richter gave his first recital at the age of nineteen. Shortly after his recital Richter was persuaded to seek study with one of Russia’s great piano teachers, Heinrich Neuhaus, in Moscow, who later remarked, “I must say that in all honesty there was nothing more I could teach Richter.” Gifted with large hands (it’s said he was able to span an octave between his thumb and index finger) and an athletic ability, Richter performed exclusively in the former Soviet Union until 1960 when, finally being allowed to travel to France, this performance from 1961 was recorded.

One of the first things to notice in the opening “Allegro” of the Haydn Sonata No. 49 in E-flat is the closeness of the piano and the quiet of the audience. Performed with much love and caring, the music just flows with all the different musical lines being expressed in their own way so that it almost sounds as if this sonata is for piano 4 hands! Every note and every phrase sings, and you get to see a few different sides of Haydn. Even the one cough you faintly hear doesn’t detract from Richter’s beautiful performance. In fact, it enhances it because you feel as if you’re close to the stage where Richter is playing.

With the “Adagio cantabile” Richter amazes one with all the different colors he’s able to coax out of his keyboard, the playfulness on the one hand and the gentleness on the other. Just breathtaking!

The finale is in “Rondo” form (the first theme keeps returning) and the performance is exact and clean, with Richter yet again letting Haydn take us through many different moods. Haydn, composing this sonata expressly for Marianne von Genzinger, wrote to her in June of 1790, “I strongly recommend (the “adagio” movement) to your attention…It is rather difficult but full of feeling,” and that best sums up Richter’s performance–full of feeling!

The second work on the disc is four Preludes from Claude Debussy’s Book I. For a complete change of pace, Richter goes from the clean Classical style to the lush Impressionism of Debussy. This couldn’t be more different from the Haydn. Whether it’s the ice landscape of the “Pas sur le neige” (Steps on the Snow) or the Spanish flavor of “La Serenade interrompue” (The Interrupted Serenade) or the homage to the sea in “La Cathedral engloutie” (The Sunken Cathedral), Richter paints an orchestral landscape across his piano keyboard that’s breathtaking.

And finally, not to be outdone, the final piece on the program is the “Suggestion diabolique” of Richter’s friend and countryman Sergei Prokofiev. In the hands of Richter the diabolique turns absolutely Faustian and is the equal of the Liszt’s “Totentanz” as you marvel at how Richter is all over the keyboard. The audience almost starts to applaud before the work is finished, and you can just imagine how they leapt to their feet, bringing to a close a wonderful program to have on disc from one of the giant pianists of the 20th Century. A must have not only for Richter AND piano fans, but everyone who loves to hear music played as lovingly and wonderfully and as beautifully as this!

Vanguard Classics ATM-CD-1586 (UPC 6 99675 15862 0)


BEETHOVEN Piano Sonatas, Vol. II Sonatas Op. 10 and 13, Andras Schiff

There’s a little blurb on the shrink wrap of my copy of this CD which reads “We are in for a memorable cycle,” from The Sunday Times (UK) reviewing Volume I and I wholly concur!

Here in Volume II we have Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas Nos 5, 6, 7 and 8. The last movement of the Sonata No. 6 is a favorite not just of mine, but music everyone knows, and the mammoth “Pathetique Sonata” is the last sonata on the CD. While I know all four sonatas to various degrees, I’ve actually made attempts to play the “Pathetique Sonata” (#8) and know it best.

Overall, the “Pathetique” is marvelous, as are all the sonatas on this recording, allowing Mr. Schiff to not only bring out the many contrasting moods of the sonata but to let it breathe. After the opening “Grave,” which Mr. Schiff performs in the very “sturm und drang” and ultraromantic mood in which it was written, he plays the “Allegro” with a well chosen pace in which he expresses some marvelous musical ideas. Just listen, for instance, to where the second theme begins at 2:04. There are little points where Mr. Schiff slows down JUST a bit, only to bring the music back to the tempo at which he started, making magic as he goes. Leading into the heroic figure in the major key at 2:54, there’s a hesitation to the first notes, as if saying “we have arrived!” And all the time, what a beautiful instrument to express himself on, and what a recording venue! If the picture on page two of the liner notes is accurate, Mr. Schiff is playing a Boesendorfer grand piano for these performances, which were recorded at the Tonhalle Zurich in November of 2004.

The rest of the movement is just as amazing. There’s the second return of the “Grave” and the second return of the “Allegro,” both more tenderly and excitedly performed. And with the last statement of the “Grave” theme, Mr. Schiff saved his best for last. The power of the fortes is almost deafening and the sweetness of the pianos will melt your heart. And, if you don’t know the work, just when you think you’re about to come to the end of the movement, Beethoven throws in yet one final fragment of the “Grave” theme and comes to finish with a fragment of the “Allegro” theme. Not unlike what was to come in the Symphony No 5, which Beethoven composed many years later.

The “Adagio Cantabile” second movement is one every lover of classical music knows. One of the great Beethoven interpreters of the 20th Century was Artur Schnabel, who had a pupil named Karl Hass — the same Karl Haas who we grew up with listening to on the radio with his “Adventures in Good Music.” Mr. Haas performed this movement both before and after every program. Here is the needed respite from the tension filled first movement, and in Mr. Schiff’s hands, the performance is tender and peaceful, the calm before the storm that’s about to close the sonata.

The last movement “Rondo” is played with a well-chosen tempo as well, and the “sunnier” moments that alternate with the “darker” main theme are contrasted very well. In this movement yet again, Beethoven takes a well known compositional idea and makes it totally his own by stating the “rondo” theme twice, and the third time he starts to vary the music for his “rondo” theme, not just here but every time it comes back for the rest of the movement as well.

According to the “2003/2004 Penguin Guide,” the recommended complete sets of Beethoven piano sonatas include those of Richard Goode, Wilhelm Kempff, Daniel Barenboim on EMI and DG, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Bernard Roberts, Artur Schnabel and William Backhaus. The only review I’ve read so far is from the June 2006 issue of “BBC Music Magazine,” in which Erik Levi writes “Throughout the Sonata (No. 5) Schiff demonstrates a quite miraculous command of voicing, drawing out subtle threads from the inner parts that are not always so audible in other recordings,” and “Schiff’s ‘Pathetique’ is equally stimulating with a particularly fine sense of tempo proportion between the slow and fast sections of the first movement,” AND “Schiff combines impetuosity with an imaginative quicksilver sense of humor in the outer movements, whilst finding repose and nobility in the ‘Largo e mesto’ (Sonata No. 7).” I hope you enjoy some wonderful music making as Erik Levi and I have!

ECM NEW SERIES, B 0005922-02

UPC 0 28947 63100 2


The Da Vinci Code – Hans Zimmer

Composer Hans Zimmer has won an Academy Award for his music to “The Lion King” and the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences has nominated other scores including “Rain Man” and “Gladiator.” Additionally, Zimmer has also written scores for movies as diverse as “Crimson Tide,” “A League of Their Own” and “Backdraft.”

With the very opening of “The Da Vinci Code” soundtrack there are recurring passages for low strings (celli and basses) between more “mysterious” music that almost have the quality and feel of the serenades of Dvorak, Tchaikovsky and Elgar, while, at the same time being different from those composers. Listen in at :13, again at :27, and still again at :42. Beginning at 2:35 Zimmer begins to bring all of the various components that we’ve heard so far together in what might be described as more of a concert piece than a soundtrack, a testament to a beautifully conceived overture, if you will. This music will reappear in the “CheValiers de Sagreal” (Track 13) near the end of the work, just as you find in Dvorak’s “Serenade for Winds” and Tchaikovsky’s “Souvenir de Florence.”

There is music that is reminiscent of the openness of Renaissance music (:57 of Track 3), there is music that runs throughout the movie (2:34 of Track 1; :31 of Track 5; 1:33 of Track 8) like a Wagnerian leitmotif, and there’s even an unbelievably beautiful “Kyrie for the Magdalene” (track 14) for soprano solo, choir and organ that’s NOT written by Hans Zimmer, but by Richard Harvey. You even get a bonus track not in the film (Track 7, “Salvete virgines”).

To my ears this soundtrack is more than just a soundtrack. We can call it a suite, we can call it a serenade, we can call it a symphony. It’s all these classifications and more. Yes, you’ll hear music that might SOUND like something else, but it’s all a natural evolution — just as Mahler built upon Beethoven, and the early composers in Hollywood built upon Mahler, Hans Zimmer has taken up that baton and created a wonderful and wondrous score. The soloists are terrific, the choir under Nick Glennie Smith is gorgeous and the orchestra under Richard Harvey is magnificent. As director Ron Howard writes in the accompanying booklet, “Once again, the inspired Hans Zimmer has given us extraordinarily memorable music to appreciate within the framework of a film or completely on its own, where you can let the sounds carry you on your own private journey. Enjoy.”

Coda: The July issue of “Classic FM” arrived the other day at my door, and right there on the front cover was the teaser “Discover Da Vinci’s Real Code.” What I found, in part, was a segment of an interview between Anna Britten and Robert King, conductor of The King’s Consort. When asked about the score, King replied, “Parts of it are luscious, parts are challenging. With Hans coming from a German tradition there are moments of pure Mahler – gorgeous. At other times it’s quite violent. It’s a humdinger Zimmer score!”

Decca Records

Catalogue Number B 0006479-02

UPC 6 02498 54041 1

Copyright 2006 WWFM The Classical Network

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