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Recordings, Summer 1984

ISSUE:  Summer 1984

The music of French composer Charles Koechlin (and there is alot of it) seems not to have been in vogue during his lifetime (1867—1950) and is all but forgotten today, qualifying EMI’s recording of two of his longer works as a rarity. As performed by the Monte Carlo Philharmonic, Alexandra Myrat conducting, the Ballade for Piano & Orchestra (1919) is a congenial piece of music with some lovely lyrical moments but little of real substance. More successful is Koechlin’s homage to the cinema, the Seven Stars Symphony (1933). Here are portraits—amusing, poignant, precise—of the actors and actresses who captured the public’s imagination between the world wars: the elegance and voluptuousness of Dietrich, the exotic romanticism of Fairbanks in The Thief of Bagdad, the quirky everyman that was Chaplin. A pleasurable discovery (Angel DS-37940).

Each quarter seems to bring another LP of Irish songs, and this time it’s one entitled Moore’s Irish Melodies (Nonesuch 79050-1), an enchanting collection drawn from the set bearing that name and published in the early 1800’s by Dublin poet Thomas Moore. The singers—Lucy Shelton, Jan DeGaetani, Martin Kelly, and William Sharp—display a real sensitivity to the material, as does accompanist Igor Kipnis, whose choice of fortepiano as his instrument is an inventive touch.

While Prokofiev’s buoyant Classical Symphony and his lyrical, dramatic ballet Romeo and Juliet seem stylistically further apart than the 20 years separating their dates of composition, they make compatible partners on disc, as heard in stunning new performances by Sir Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (London LDR-71087). The Classical is well-served by Solti’s spirited tempos, the closing pages almost quicksilver in their urgency. Overside, the ballet has a freshness that begins with the conductor’s imaginative selection of numbers from the complete score, a compilation focusing primarily on the love story itself, and extends to the playing, which has an intensity to its dramatic sweep and a vivid sense of the heartfelt.

Prokofiev’s ballet Cinderella has also been newly recorded, and while it certainly has its dramatic moments, the composer’s central interest was in the Perrault tale’s elemental magic. The music that came from this vision is pure enchantment, and it’s a treat to hear it in its entirety for a change, Andre Previn’s reading with the London Symphony Orchestra capturing our imagination from the opening moments and never letting go (Angel DSB-3944).

Ernani (1844), historically important as the opera that established Verdi’s reputation outside Italy, is a dramatic dud, poorly adapted from a Hugo play, counterbalanced by a great stock of melodies. It’s always sounded terrific on disc, and EMI’s recording of the 1983 La Scala performance is no exception, although nitpickers will find some of the singing uneven. Placido Domingo and Mirella Freni front the cast; Ricardo Muti coaxes glorious sounds from the Milan players; and, except at the act breaks, the audience applause has somehow been eliminated (Angel DSCX-3942).

The Barry Tuckwell Wind Quintet— Tuckwell, Gervase de Peyer, Martin Gatt, Derek Wickens, and Peter Lloyd—are heard in a number of out-of-the-way items written for winds. The works include Malcolm Arnold’s accessible Three Shanties, based on nautical folk songs; Samuel Barber’s impressionistic, bittersweet Summer Music; and György Ligeti’s inventive miniatures comprising the Six Bagatelles, from the early 1950’s when he was composing in the more traditional forms. It’s an imaginative collection of some very attractive music, masterfully performed (Nonesuch 78022—1).

Twenty-four-year old soloist Cho Liang-Lin is heard in two warhorses for violin and orchestra: Mendelssohn’s E Minor Concerto and Saint-Saëns Concerto No.3 (CBS IM-39007). Both are readings of distinction, the Mendelssohn poised and direct in its appeal, the Saint-Saëns appropriately sumptuous, played with teasing charm and a lot of flair. The orchestral performances, by the Philharmonia Orchestra, are polished to a high lustre by Michael Tilson Thomas.

Gidon Kremer, perhaps the foremost violinist of his generation, is heard in a new recording of the Sibelius Violin Concerto, with Riccardo Muti and the Philharmonia Orchestra (Angel DS-37957). Interpretively there is little to distinguish this version from his earlier effort with Gennady Rozhdestvensky (Vanguard), so the clear advantage here is the digital sound and the more natural recorded balance between orchestra and soloist. Overside there’s Schumann’s D Minor Concerto, long suppressed as inferior, brought before the public in the 1930’s, and argued about ever since. It appears from time to time as a kind of novelty, and Kremer makes the most of its lyrical qualities while minimizing its awkwardness.

Spanish music is heard in a trio of new releases. Rodrigo’s Cello Concerto (1982) is full of fire, passion, and poetry, its dazzling pyrotechnical demands handled with ease by dedicatee Julian Lloyd Weber, accompanied by Jesus López-Coboz and the London Philharmonic on the premiere recording (RCA ARL1—4665). López-Coboz conducts the L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande in Joaquin Turina’s Canto a Sevilla (1927), evoking the magic of the composer’s native city through four poems by José Munoz San Roman scored for orchestra and voice. Pilar Lorengar is the soloist (London 410 158—1). And guitarist Angel Romero performs the music of his father, Celedonio, which combines the rhythms and dances of Spain within the formal traditions of the baroque form (Angel DS-37311).

Shostakovich’s somber Symphony No. 8 paints a haunting portrait of the tragedies of World War II and stands in contrast to his bombastic ode to wartime heroism, the Seventh, completed just two years before. With the Concertgebouw Orchestra, Bernard Haitink brings orderliness to the Eighth’s massive architecture, sustaining the long line and maintaining the musical flow over its five movements and more than 60-minute length. Equally as important, he captures the music’s natural eloquence through delineation of the ice-cold glitter that lies just beneath the surface (London LDR-71121).

A memorial to the First World War is Britten’s War Requiem (1962); and while the composer’s own recording of it will always deserve a place in the catalog, it has long been due for the kind of fresh interpretive insights provided by Simon Rattle, who takes a number of risks, especially regarding tempos, and succeeds not only in heightening the contrasts between darkness and light but also in giving the score a greater sense of cohesion. The soloists— Elisabeth Soderstrom, Robert Tear, Thomas Allen—and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra all benefit from having years of experience in performing this piece (Angel DSB-3949).

Familiar works by Britten and Copland are heard on two LP’s from Neville Marriner and the Minnesota Orchestra. Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from “Peter Crimes” and The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra are paired on Angel DS-38049. Though the “Grimes” material is not as darkly colored as it might have been, both versions hold up well against strong competition, and the fill-up offers a first recording of the winsome Men of Goodwill (1947), Britten’s variations on the carol, “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.” On the second disc, Copland’s Appalachian Spring is beautifully expressed, and there is real rhythmic vitality both in El Salon Mexico and in the four dance episodes from the ballet Rodeo (Angel DS-38048).

Charles Dutoit leads the Symphonie-orchester des Bayerischen and pianist Andras Schiff in dazzling readings of the Mendelssohn piano concertos (London LDR-71123). With Dutoit’s fleet tempos setting the pace, Schiff gives an urbane yet extroverted performance, with plenty of razzle-dazzle technical flair, a sense of spontaneity, and even a touch of fireworks.

Trumpeter Maurice Andre and harpist Joelle Bernard make a felicitous pair in an unusual album of Renaissance and early Baroque dances arranged for their instruments (Angel DS-37917). It’s an experiment that succeeds on all levels, featuring a wide range of representative works and several surprises. Additional color is provided by percussion instruments played by Gabriel Garrido.

EMI’s “Reflexe” series consists of recordings of early music played on original instruments and adhering to authentic performance practice. Appearing here on occasion as German imports, these discs are now being released domestically in digital format at analog prices. They feature international artists taped in a variety of European locales and sport an attractive series logo and knowledgeable liner notes. Judging from the selection we received, the performances are excellent: the Linde Consort in an elegant account of J.S. Bach’s Four Suites for Orchestra (Angel SB-3943); the infrequently heard Venetian Vesper Music of Monteverdi sung by the Taverner Consort (Angel S-38030); and a selection of sacred and secular works by the 15th-century composer Joaquin Desprez from the proficient Hilliard Ensemble (Angel S-38040).

The Firebird, in the complete, 1910 version, is performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Seiji Ozawa conducting (Angel DS-38012). Without doubt, this is one of the most impeccable versions ever put to disc, yet for all its smoothness and gorgeous tone, it completely misses the music’s dramatic tension and rhythmic flourishes.

Just as disappointing is Michel Plasson’s version of Massenet’s Manon, which is well crafted, idiomatic, and dull, like others of his recent opera recordings. Ileana Cotrubas and Alfredo Kraus are among the principals (Angel DSCX-3946).

If one needed further proof that these are exciting times in music, one need only have watched this year’s telecast of the Grammy Awards ceremony, the performance highlight of which was keyboardist Herbie Hancock’s rendition of his hit, “Rockit,” a fusion not only of musical trends but of video trends as well and one of the most viscerally exciting pieces of live television in recent memory. “Rockit” is but one of the inducements of Future Shock (Columbia FC-38814), in which an awesome battery of electronic gear is brought to bear in a modernistic blend of jazz, pop, and funk propelled by a driving beat and a variety of unusual effects, such as record-scratching. This is new music all right—great fun and meant to be danced to and played at top volume.

Safe Journey (EMC 25002—1/4) is the new release by guitarist Steve Tibbetts, whose Northern Song (ECM) was enthusiastically received in these pages several years ago. Journey extends the earlier album’s musical ideas in a number of provocative ways: the rhythmic soundscapes more fully developed as complete compositions, the minimalist influences better intergrated, and the choice of electric over acoustic guitar giving the music a harder edge. Percussionist Marc Anderson is his partner.

Another artist whose musical experiments have been admired here is Andreas Vollenweider, whose electronically altered harp gives him the ability to produce rhythmic and coloristic effects not usually associated with this instrument. Caverna Magica (CBS FM-37827) is a more complex, more consistently satisfying LP than the earlier disc, yet comparisons are misleading, as this dreamily attractive music is in a class by itself.

Standards (ECM 23793—1) is the first in a series of albums featuring evergreens—”All the Things You Are” and “God Bless the Child” among them—played by pianist Keith Jarrett with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack Dejohnette. Not listed on the jacket are Jarrett’s vocal contributions, a shrill self-indulgence that makes the late Glenn Gould’s humming seem subtle by comparison.

The disparate musical sensibilities of Norwegian guitarist Terje Rypdal and American cellist David Darling neatly complement each other on Eos (ECM 23799—1). At times pulsing with energy and at others hauntingly ethereal, the music forms a vibrant soundscape of colors, tones, and textures, aided by Rypdal’s use of synthesizer. “Laser,” Rypdal’s album-opening electric guitar solo, makes us long for him to record a true fusion LP of high-energy jazz or even some hard rock.

The rock influences of drummer Phil Collins and keyboardist Jan Hammer on Scenario (Columbia FC-38944) have helped give guitarist Al DeMeola his biggest audience to date. Actually there are two scenarios here: a tapestry of contemporary jazz showing Indian and African influences on side one, and a grab bag of fusion tunes on side two.

Another LP bridging a variety of musical styles sports the offbeat title Singing Whale Songs in a Low Voice (Hip Pocket HP-102), which is the recording debut of guitarist Steven Miller. Joined by friends Art Lande on piano and Mark Isham on synthesizer and horns, Miller produces music that’s an ingratiating blend of straight ahead jazz and fusion. Here is someone to watch.

The 1979 LP In Passing (ECM) was our introduction to English saxophonist John Surman, though he apparently has been an important musical figure overseas for more than a decade. Such Winters of Memory, his latest ECM release (1—23795), shows influences spanning folk and jazz forms, liturgical music and minimalism. With the use of synthesizer, his pastiches form a framework for improvisations—some quite abstract—in which he’s joined by percussionist Pierre Favre and singer Karen Krog.


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