Capsule Reviews

Copyright © by Fred Flaxman, 1999, 2000.

Alkan: Le Festin d'Esope, Barcarolle, Quasi-Faust, and Symphonie.

BMG High Performance (HP 09026 63310-2)

Raymond Lewenthal, pianist

Lewenthal started the recent revival of interest in Alkan and now I understand why. His performances are truly magnificent. They sound impossible! You can't believe that there are no other pianists playing at the same time! In fact, sometimes it's hard to believe that there isn't an entire orchestra there, the sound is so full and lush! Lewenthal brings out the best in these compositions, which is very good indeed. And the remastering is excellent, too. Even the program notes, which are by Lewenthal himself, are fascinating and extremely well written. Also on this disc is the most interesting group composition, Hexameron, by Liszt, Thalberg, Pixis, Herz, Czerny and Chopin.

Bach: 5 Versionen der Passacaglia BWV 582 (Signum SIG X93-00)

This is a great idea, well executed: a CD with five versions of the famous "Passacaglia" by J.S. Bach. The first version is performed on a period organ by Christian Rieger. The second, a piano version by Eugene d'Albert (1864-1932) is performed by Ernst Breidenbach. Next comes a version for romantic organ by Franz Liszt (1811-1886) and Johann Gottlob Topfer (1791-1870). The fourth version is for piano, four hands, by Max Reger (1873-1916). The pianists are Oliver Kolb and Ernst Breidenbach. And, finally, Leopold Stokowski's (1882-1977) orchestral transcription performed by the Frankfurt State Orchestra conducted by Nikos Athinaos.

Dvorak: Stabat Matter (Telarc 2-CD 80506)

The late Robert Shaw conducts the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus with Christine Goerke, soprano; Marietta Simpson, mezzo-soprano; Stanford Olsen, tenor; and Nathan Berg, bass-baritone. For those who love romantic requiems and have all the major ones, give this beautiful piece by a master melodist a try. Though it's not in a class with the Brahms' "German Requiem" or those by Verdi, Berlioz and Faure, it is not that far behind and this is an excellent recording, both singing and sound.

Elgar:The Music Makers; The Dream of Gerontius (2-CDs, EMI Classics 7243 5 66540 2 0)

"The Music Makers," in particular, is an exciting, melodic composition. It may seem familiar to you, even if you never heard it before, because Elgar reuses themes from the "Enigma Variations" and other earlier works, as well as snippets from the "Marseillaise" and "Rule Britannia!" You might even say that Elgar did his own "best of Elgar" composition. Sounds in theory as though it would never work, but it does. It is really thrilling to hear these familiar themes used in a different way. The performers, including Dame Janet Baker and the London Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra conducted by SIr Adrian Boult, are excellent, but these are remasterings of analog recordings made in 1967 and 1976, so the sound is not as good as a more recent recording would be.

The History of Opera (4 CDs, Naxos Audiobooks NA417612)

This is the ideal subject for an audiobook, combining as it does the most interesting and informative text by Richard Fawkes, read by actor Robert Powell, with many very well selected and performed musical examples. I would like to lend this set to a good friend who, I know, would enjoy it immensely. But I'm afraid I wouldn't get it back.

Janacek: Violin Sonata; Capriccio for Piano left-hand, Flute/Piccolo, Two Trumpets, Three Trombones and Tenor Tuba; Romance; Dumka; Allegro (Naxos 8.553588)

I particularly recommend the delightful "Capriccio," which is sheer fun. If you already know and like the composer's famous "Sinfonietta," you will undoubtedly want to listen to the "Capriccio," which definitely comes from the same mind in the same playful mood. The performers, none of whom I am familiar with and all of whom have names to match the nationality of the composer, do a smashing job under the baton of Tamas Benedek.

Myaskovsky and Shostakovich Naxos (8.550953)

Dalgat String Ensemble conducted by Roland Melia

Nikolay Myaskovsky by any other spelling would sound as sweet. I keep hoping he'll be rediscovered, or should I say "discovered," because, in the U.S. at least, he is almost unknown, even amongst people who love classical music.

This Soviet-era composer (1881-1950) was as much a victim of anti-tonalism as he was anti-communism. Now that the atonalists have fallen out of favor with the musical elite, the composers who continued to write music as if Schoenberg had never happened are being rediscovered right and left. Perhaps it is Myaskovsky's turn now.

Judging by his Sinfonietta in A Minor, Op. 68, No. 2, it's about time! This highly accessible, beautifully constructed, melodious work is out on bargain-brand Naxos, well performed by the Dalgat String Ensemble conducted by Roland Melia. It is paired with the Chamber Symphony (String Quartet No. 8) in C Minor, Op. 110a by Dmitry Shostakovich, Myaskovsky's contemporary, as arranged by Rudolf Barshai. This is an excellent, but far more serious work, in a much more "modern" mood which I find clashes with the Myaskovsky work. I wish the Myaskovsky had been paired with another work of his, and the Shostakovich issued on a separate CD devoted to Shostakovich's music.

Rachmaninov:Complete Works for Cello and Piano Naxos (8.550987)

Michael Grebanier, cellist; Janet Guggenheim, pianist

Rachmaninov's complete works for cello and piano are further proof, if any is needed, that this composer belongs in the Parthenon of Great Composers for three reasons: (1) he writes one gorgeous melody after another, (2) he had a totally original style, and (3) his music moves more people per performance, I imagine, than any other composer, with the possible exception of Tchaikovsky.

This new Naxos release features long-time San Francisco Symphony Orchestra principal cellist Michael Grebanier, a master at milking every last tear out of that most sorrowful of instruments. And every cut on this CD is worth having in your collection, from Rachmaninov's extraordinarilly brilliant masterpiece Sonata in G Minor for Cello and Piano, Op. 19 (1901), with which the disc begins, to the early Danse Orientale in A Major, Op. 2, No. 2 (1892) with which it comes to an end.

In between you'll enjoy the Romance in F Major, Op. 4, No. 3 (1893), arranged for cello and piano with Rachmaninov's permission by Alexander Siloti, the youthful Lied (Romance) in F Minor and Melodie in D Major (both from 1890), the Prelude in F Major, Op. 2, No. 1 (1892), and one of the composer's most famous and hauntingly beautiful compositions, the Vocalise in E Minor, Op. 34, No. 14 (1912).

The music, the performance and the sound quality are all winners on this CD, which I think is a must-have for every lover of romantic classical music.

Sibelius:Piano Music, Vol. 1 (Naxos 8.553899)

Havard Gimse is the pianist in this superb recording of pieces which demonstrate that Sibelius could write as well for the piano as he did for his more famous orchestral compositions. These works show the composer at his most tuneful and romantic, although not always at his most Sibelian, if I can coin a word. Although the Sonata in F Major, Op. 12 -- my favorite selection on this album -- sounds as though it was written by Sibelius, some of the Six Impromptus, Op. 5, and Ten Pieces, Op. 24, which share this CD, sound more like Grieg or Debussy or even Satie in style than they do like Sibelius. They are nevertheless beautiful, and I have listened to this CD more than any other this month.

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