Virtually unknown today, Giovanni Punto (1748—1803) was famous in his time as a horn virtuoso and composer. Born Jan Vaclav Stich to a serf family in Prague, he was educated musically by a patron, Count von Thun, from whose dominance he fled, at age 20, across the border to the Holy Roman Empire, the furious Count’s soldiers close at his heels with orders to end his performing career by kicking out his front teeth. After taking the Italianized name Punto, the Czech began a peripatetic course that took him to Paris, where an admiring Mozart wrote for him the Sinfonia Concertante (K.297b), and to Vienna, where Beethoven honored him with the Opus 17 Sonata. Thanks to contemporary horn virtuoso Barry Tuckwell, we now have the details of Punto’s remarkable life and a recording of four Punto concertos (Angel SZ-37781), eclectic specimens all. The music has panache and teasing charm, just right to showcase the talents of a Punto or a Tuckwell, and the performances here are ably partnered by Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields.
Karl Goldmark’s charming Rustic Wedding Symphony (1876) has persistently held a place in Schwann despite its being a relatively little-known work. Less a symphony than a suite, it has five movements that roughly parallel a true country wedding feast: “Wedding March,” “Bride Song,” “Serenade,” “In the Garden,” and “Wedding Dance.” There have been several excellent accounts of this piece, though none so fine as a new digital recording in which the Los Angeles Philharmonic plays with sensitivity and responsiveness for Jesus Lopez-Cobos, with details of the score standing out as never before, That the performance as a whole could have benefited from greater rhythmic lift is a small reservation to a splendid interpretation of a minor classic (London LDR-71030).
Historically, Goldmark’s reputation rests less on his homespun Symphony than on The Queen of Sheba (1875), an opera in the grand tradition with splashes of oriental color and numerous Wagnerian touches. Once a staple of opera houses the world over, it faded from view after World War II, though revivals in 1969 and 1979 have proven its durability. One would be hardpressed to devise a more inspired interpretation than that heard on its premiere recording (Hungaroton SLPX-12179/82), with Siegfried Jerusalem as the abused Assam, Klara Takacs as the fire-and-ice queen, and orchestral playing of character and vitality by the Hungarian State Opera Orchestra led by Adam Fischer.
Like Goldmark, Leos Janácek is a composer whose works have taken up residence in the catalogue while remaining pretty much at the fringes of the performing repertory. Australian conductor Charles Mackerras has done much to counter this in recent years through his concerts and a series of recordings for British Decca. His latest installation in the opera cycle is From the House of the Dead (London LDR-71020), a work completed one month before the composer’s death in 1928. Brooding and intense, it is unusual in its lack of a central character or conventional plot, depicting Siberian prison camp life through a series of vignettes based on Dostoevsky. Though it is unlikely to find a wide audience, it is good to have it on disc, Maekerras presenting a compelling case for it with the Vienna Philharmonic and a firstrate Czech cast. Notably, this is the first presentation of the work as the composer intended for it to be heard, versions subsequent to his death having been made less grim by his well-meaning pupils. On another recording (London LDR-71020), Mackerras conducts the Vienna forces in Janáciek’s two most popular orchestral pieces, the Sinfonietta and Tarns Bulba. The Sinfonietta is a sonic gem, digital sound working to great advantage with drums prominent, brass crisply defined, and real intensity in the music’s soaring lines. No less effective is Tarus Bulba, which gets sympathetic treatment from the Vienna players. In both cases, small changes in the traditional scoring have been made to correspond to the autograph scores.
Composer Robert Moran may have written his first piano waltz in 1976 as a lark, but his challenge to fellow American composers to write similar vehicles was serious. The result, published as The Waltz Project, is a varied, mostly delightful compendium of the wit and whimsy of some of our most celebrated writers of music, Philip Glass, Milton Babbitt, and Roger Sessions among them. The 25 waltzes that comprise the Project range in length from twelve seconds to five minutes and run the gamut of styles from traditional—Alden Ashforth’s lilting Sentimental Waltz— to electronic—John Cage’s clamorous Waltzes for the Five Boroughs. Now a battery of pianists has recorded 17 of these pieces in one of the most fascinating recorded efforts of the past year. Appropriately enough, the disc opens with Moran’s graceful homage to Ravel—the waltz that gave rise to the Project five years ago (Nonesuch D-79011).
Another intriguing collection of American piano music is called Blues, Ballads and Rags (Nonesuch D-79006), played by Paul Jacobs. The LP opens with the elegant strains of Graceful Ghost, one of William Bolcom’s Three Ghost Rags, and ends with the percussive din of the Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues, from Frederick Rzewski’s variations on work songs tided Four North American Ballads. The “blues” part of the album title comes from a quartet of jazzlike pieces written by Aaron Copland between 1926 and 1948, published as Four Piano Blues. As with the majority of his recordings, Jacobs’ performances here communicate his affinity for these works as well as his thorough enjoyment of them.
Filling a gap in the catalog is the Guarneri Quartet’s recording of the Opus 106 Quartet in G, Dvorák’s final chamber work, written in Prague not long after his return from America. It’s an estimable piece not often recorded, and it’s hard to say why. The Guarneri’s performance is distinguished throughout, sensitive in phrasing, vigorous when the music demands, and particularly winsome in the gorgeous Adagio. Applause also goes to the album’s art director, whose LP cover parodies a legendary album by a famous pop music quartet (RCA ARL1—4051). An early Dvorák chamber work is the Quintet in G, Opus 77 (originally Opus 18), completed in 1874. It’s one of a handful of works that stand at the crossroad between Dvorák’s early musical influences and the nationalistic sentiments that informed his subsequent compositions. The work abounds in melodies, and the tranquil second movement so pleased its author that he later extended it as the Notturno for Strings. With Julius Levine, the Sequioa Quartet provides an expansive treatment that captures its full evocative beauty (Nonesuch D-79012).
Dvorák’s more familiar works are also represented this quarter. The Slavonic Dances are well known both in the concert hall and on disc. On disc, we have always been fortunate to have recorded versions played by Czech musicians, who have this music in their blood. Though the enthusiasm and spirit of these performances can often come at the expense of tonal suavity, such is not the case with a new issue by the Czech Philharmonic under Zdeněk Košter (Supraphon 1110 2981/82). Mstislav Rostropovich continues his survey of the Dvorák symphonies with recordings of the Sixth (Angel SZ-37716) and the Eighth (Angel SZ-37718). The reading of the Sixth is appropriately warm and affectionate, though this same approach with the Eighth was unsatisfying.
Karol Szymanowski (1881—1937) is often said to be Poland’s most important musical voice between Chopin and the contemporary composers Lutoslawski and Penderecki, yet his works haven’t found a secure foothold in the Western catalogue. Certainly, much of what we’ve heard in his oeuvre has been unusual, perhaps exemplified by the Third Symphony (1916), newly recorded by Antal Dorati and the Detroit Symphony (London LDR-71026). Whereas the Second Symphony (1911), also heard here, suggests a variety of influences, none fully assimilated, the Third has Szymanowski in full voice, the work characteristic of his middle period style, a kind of impressionism with heavy oriental overlays. Informed by the poem Song of the Night by Sufi mystic Jalal ed-Din Rumi, it’s a heady brew of exoticism dished up for tenor, mixed chorus, and large orchestra—the type of work for which atmospheric seems a wholly inadequate term as played to the hilt by the Detroiters. Szymanowski’s orientalisms are also evident in the chamber work Mythes, three poems for violin and piano recorded by Kaja Danczowska and Krystian Zimerman (DG 2531 330). These lovely pieces have plenty to say under these performers, who capture the music’s beguiling warmth as well as its fervid intensity. A cogent reading of Franck’s Senate in A is the companion piece.
Written in Copenhagen shortly after his student days, Grieg’s Symphony in C Minor (1864) qualifies as a genuine rarity. His first completed orchestral work, it is of traditional architecture and exceptionally well crafted, its influence clearly Schumann. After several performances, Grieg had second thoughts and withdrew it, consigning the score to his personal archives with a strict note that it should never be performed. Aside from his own arrangement of the two middle movements for piano four-hands, nothing more was heard of it, its very existence known only to a handful of specialists. It was perhaps inevitable that it be brought to light, as has now been done by the Bergen Symphony and conductor Karsten Andersen (London LDR-71037). It is quite unlike anything else we know by this composer, and if it is not an especially inspired piece of music, this thoughtful performance makes the most of its tuneful appeal.
Simon Rattle conducts the Philharmonia Orchestra in the first digital account of Hoist’s The Planets (Angel DS-37817). In addition to ravishing sound, the performance is notable for the compelling unity it brings to the score’s disparate elements, from the propulsive Mars to the icy glitter of Neptune. The Ambrosian Singers provide the ethereal wordless chorus.
The past quarter also brought digital accounts of the Sibelius and Brahms Violin Concertos. The Sibelius (RCA ATC1—3937) marks the recording debut of 19-year-old Dylana Jenson, whose playing has a technical security and firmness of tone that belie her age. That she also has a keen sense of identification with this music is evident from the joyful spontaneity of her performance, which is free from excessive interpretive point-making and neatly matched by the tonal lushness of the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy. Another propitious match has soloist Ulf Hoelscher with Klaus Tennstedt leading the North German Radio Symphony in the Brahms (Angel DS-37798). Hoelscher, who recently successfully traversed the infrequently traveled musical territory of the Korngold and Strauss concertos, is equally at home in this repertory standard, playing with tone that’s bright and true. For his part, Tennstedt extracts authoritative sounds from the orchestra, shaping the line to project aspects of the score in a manner that brings them more to the fore than in other versions.
Stephen Bishop-Kovacevich, who rarely disappoints, has turned out a recording of the Brahms Second Piano Concerto that is surprisingly idiosyncratic. Though things start off promisingly, the interpretation soon begins to vacillate from languid to bombastic, with Colin Davis playing catchup and the London Symphony sounding slightly confused (Philips 9500 682).
Luigi Cherubini (1760—1842) was born in Florence but spent virtually all his life in Paris, much of it as director of the Conservatoire, from which post he dominated French music for nearly half a century. His compositions, especially his operas, were greatly admired, though changing public tastes had begun to sweep them from the standard repertory even before his death, and by the end of the 19th century his music was rarely heard. Today we know Cherubini chiefly for his liturgical works, of which the infrequently heard Requiem in D Minor is newly recorded by Swiss vocal forces and the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande under Horst Stein (London LDR-10034). Written toward the end of his life and intended to be performed at his funeral, the D Minor is a somber, intensely spiritual work uncompromised by the Romantic musical winds that swirled around him, its gravity in part due to the exclusive use of male voices in obeisance to the ecclesiastical dictates of the day. Notwithstanding its austere qualities, its appeal is strong and direct, with Stein’s articulate performance striking just the right balance between shadow and light.
Schubert’s Piano Trio No. 1 (D. 898) is a familiar work that offers ever-fresh fascinations. The Suk Trio’s performance brings orderliness and control to the music’s textures and is ardent without loss of the score’s darker and more thoughtful qualities (Supraphon 1111 1898).
In our recent review of the Dallas Symphony’s recording of Daphnis et Chloé (RCA), we noted the difficulty of capturing the special luminosity that lies beneath the surface of Ravel’s music. That magical quality is the key to the success of a new version from Charles Dutoit and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and Chorus (London LDR-71028). Dutoit’s gift for sustaining musical flow is one measure of the shimmer that gives this reading an edge over the competition. Textures here are beautifully transparent, and tempos are well judged so that the forward impulse is never impeded as the music moves toward the climactic closing moments, which have real impact. The digital dynamics are especially wide but not used merely for effect. This is our first exposure to the Montreal players, and it is a pleasure to report that their playing is a joy throughout, fully up to the demands of this difficult score.
Memorable performances of two Debussy standards are found on an EMI reissue featuring the winning combination of Sir John Barbirolli and the Orchestre de Paris (Seraphim S-60360). La Mer was a score the conductor clearly admired, its surging restlessness and mystery an excellent contrast to the more muted hues of the Three Nocturnes, played fetchingly and delivered in clean mono sound. On another reissue (Mercury SRI-75138), we hear three selections of ballet music transcribed for wind band, Sullivan’s Pineapple Poll Suite, Gounod’s Faust, and the Rossini-Respighi La Boutique Fantasque. The charismatic performances are by the Eastman Wind Ensemble with Frederick Fennell.
Much of Mussorgsky’s musical output has yet to find its way to disc, and one wonders why this didn’t provide greater incentive to the record companies during last year’s centenary anniversary of his death. Two bright spots were an LP of vocal and orchestral pieces, and a three-disc set of his piano music. The vocal and orchestral collection comes from England and features the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus with Claudio Abbado (RCA ARL1—3988). Only the two selections from Khovanshchina are well known, the remainder apparently unavailable elsewhere. Among the vocal pieces, the real discovery is the beguiling snippet from the unfinished opera Salammbô, based on the Flaubert novel. Its languorous beauty is worlds apart from the authentically rough-hewn tone poem St. John’s Night on the Bare Mountain, heard not in the familiar Rimsky-Korsakov transcription but in the form of the composer’s quite different first thoughts on the witches’ sabbath theme. Only one of the three discs comprising the piano set was available for review. Volume Two (Abrabesque 8093) features a grab bag of material, from Borodin-style salon pieces to a grand and colorful Intermezzo. Especially attractive are the shorter lyrical works, such as In the Village and In the Crimea which, along with the imaginative Impressions of a Voyage in the Crimea, are among Mussorgsky’s final piano pieces, completed a year before his death. The performances here are by the young Korean pianist Kun Woo Paik, and they are solid and well considered, if occasionally a bit more reticent than necessary.
Several out-of-the-way English works for viola are performed by Josef Koclousek and his accompanist, pianist Kvêta Novotná (Supraphon 1111 2694). This was our first exposure to the music of Rebecca Clarke (1886—1979), and while her Sonata (1919) may not be memorable in a melodic sense, it possesses a certain emotional charge that struck a pleasant note with us. Also new to our ears was Britten’s Lacrymae (1950), a set of variations on the John Dowland song Flow, My Tears. With Henry Eccles’ rigorous Sonata in G Minor, this trio of pieces makes a pleasant discovery, made all the more appealing by the accomplished performances.
A number of English concert favorites are deftly performed by Sir Vivian Dunn and the Light Music Society (Arabesque 8073). The inevitable Graninger bonbons include Molly on the Shore, Londonderry Air, and a rollicking arrangement of Country Gardens. Of the remainder, only Roger Quilter’s Childrens’ Overture was familiar to us among Geoffrey Toye’s The Haunted Ballroom, Cecil Armstrong Gibbs’ Dusk, and Henry Balfour Gardiner’s Shepherd Fennell’s Dance. Recommended.
After an absence from public view of more than six years, Miles Davis was on the stage and in the recording studio in 1981. Last spring, Directions (Columbia KC2—36472) paved the way for his return. A provocative compilation of unreleased tracks, it ranged from a 1960 collaboration with Gil Evans to a clutch of 1970 fusion pieces impelled by the electric guitar musings of John McLaughlin, thus covering Davis’ most dynamic period of artistic growth, ending pretty much where he dropped from sight. This past summer’s The Man With the Horn (Columbia FC-36790) featured all new material and a lineup of drummer A l Foster, Fender bassist Marcus Miller, percussionist Sammy Figueroa, sax player Bill Evans, and guitarists Barry Finnerty and Mike Stern. It’s an eclectic effort, mainly fusion, some of it the surging, high energy type, but balanced by some traditional work, as in the lyrical Ursula and the mellow title cut with its vocal by Randy Hall. The genre is familiar, but no one knows this turf better than Davis, and his extraordinary improvisational powers give the music a freshness and vitality that sustain it throughout. Though the album has received mixed notices, it was for us last year’s main event in jazz.
Guitarist Pat Metheny is joined by Lyle Mays on keyboards and autoharp in the cleverly named As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls (ECM 1—1190). In many ways, this is Metheny’s most introspective album. The title track, occupying all of side one, is a free-form collage of music and sound effects. Its lyrical impulse is extended on side two, with the Bill Evans-inspired September Fifteenth and two Brazilian items featuring percussionist Nana Vasconcelos. Along the way, the folklike Ozark recalls the bouyancy of Metheny’s earlier LP efforts.
EMI should have revised the British liner notes to its latest Gershwin recording (DS-37773), for, whereas the Cuban Overture and Second Rhapsody may be rarities in London, American concertgoers are likely to be as familiar with them as with their recorded companion piece, Robert Russell Bennett’s “symphonic picture” of Porgy and Bess. Stateside, our orchestras do wonders with Gershwin’s easygoing music, and we’ve grown accustomed to those seemingly effortless “pops” treatments heard outdoors in places like the Hollywood Bowl and the Hatch Shell along Boston’s Charles River. In this new issue, André Previn and the London Symphony try very hard, and the music sounds it.