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Recordings, Winter 1984

ISSUE:  Winter 1984

Although Prokofiev didn’t produce many chamber works, his two string quartets are late, fully developed compositions whose neglect on disc is undeserved. The intense, dark-hued Quartet No. 1 contrasts with the colorful Second Quartet, which is based almost entirely on folk themes. The two are an ideal match on Nonesuch D-79048, played with character and vitality by the Sequoia Quartet.

Bach’s St. Matthew Passion offers ever-fresh fascinations, and the latest account by forces under Raymond Leppard is no exception (Angel DSCX-3934). Though the performance as a whole could be more dramatic, there is little else with which to find fault. The singing, by the likes of Benjamin Luxon, Ann Murray, and Krisztina Laki, is uniformly first-rate, the tempos and pace are judicious, and the orchestral playing, by the NDR Symphony Orchestra, is solid.

Bernard Haitink leads the Concertgebouw Orchestra in the latest installments of his Shostakovich symphonic cycle. The Fifth Symphony (London LDR-71050) is powerful and eloquent, its sad landscape thrown into sharp relief by the intensity of the Amsterdam forces’ playing. The Symphony No. 12 was written to commemorate the October Revolution and carries the subtitle “1917: In Memory of Lenin.” It’s full of nationalistic bluster and bombast, though the slow movement is genuinely moving, and Haitink overall finds a greater measure of the contemplative than have other conductors on record (London LDR-71077).

Joaquin Turina (1882—1949) was a pianist, a conductor, and a prolific composer of the genuine Spanish school. A sampling of his works is heard in idiomatic performances by the London Philharmonic, Enrique Batiz conducting (Angel DS-37950). The Fantasy Dances, the Sevillian Symphony (really a set of three picturesque impressions), and the Symphonic Rhapsody for piano and strings are characteristically lighthearted and full of the heady perfume of Andalusia.

A genial reading of Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto comes from Jean-Philippe Collard, whose playing is fluid, confident, and wholly free of the kind of mannerisms that can spoil this piece. Under Michel Plasson, the Orchestre de la Capitole de Toulouse keeps things moving briskly (Angel S-37923).

Schubert’s Octet in F for strings and winds is another work that too often receives a freewheeling approach that spoils the music’s supple architecture. The Boston Symphony Players perform a fine balancing act in their recent reading, which is crisply phrased, zesty, yet sumptuously warm (Nonesuch D-79046).

Riccardo Chailly leads the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra in a number of out-of-the-way Puccini items on London LDR-71107. All of the music heard here was written before the composer’s first major success, La Bohème in 1896, so the musical interest is comparatively thin. Even so, the extracts from Edgar and Le Villi, and the Capriccio sinfonico and Preludio sinfonico suggest Puccini’s gift for theatrical flair and orchestral coloration, and the performances couldn’t be better.

Andrew Davis’ recording of Elgar’s Enigma Variations may not be as provocative as his recent recordings of works by Ives and Strauss, but it’s equally as individualistic. Under his direction, the Philharmonia Orchestra digs more deeply into this score than we are used to, uncovering a greater sense of drama and eloquence without sacrificing the music’s warmth (CBS IM-37755).

Another familiar concert work, Grieg’s incidental music to Peer Gynt, receives a top-notch reading from Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields (Angel DS-37968). Theirs is a performance with a natural muscial flow and a balanced sense of the score’s lyrical-dramatic qualities. Shaped with extreme refinement, there are moments of real tenderness and nobility here that rival the classic version led by John Barbirolli.

Pianist Noel Lee performs music of American composer Charles Tomlinson Griffes (1884—1920) on a recording consisting of the Fantasy Pieces, the Sonata, the Roman Sketches, and the Three Tone Poems (Nonesuch H-71409). Some of these, notably “The White Peacock” from the Roman Sketches, were orchestrated by the composer and occasionally turn up in concert performances. The original versions have their own charm, and it’s good to hear them played by someone with such a keen understanding of Griffes’ unusual artistic sensibility.

Richard Stoltzman is a musician whose LP’s we eagerly anticipate. New from him is a collection offering Weber’s First Clarinet Comcerto, Rossini’s Theme and Variations for clarinet and orchestra, and Mozart’s Andante in C (K. 315). As usual, his playing is energetic and personable, his able partners Alexander Schneider and the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra (RCA ARC1-4599).

New music from minimalist composer Philip Glass is featured on a pair of discs. One is the soundtrack from the feature film Koyaanisquatsi, whose title stems from the Hopi word meaning “world out of balance.” Depicting the contemporary condition, the film lacks dialogue and even a conventional plot, relying on the interplay of the director’s visual images and Glass’s hypnotic score (Antilles ASTA-1). More ambitious is The Photographer (CBS FM-37849), music from a three-part theater piece concerning the life of pioneering photographer Eadweard Muybridge, noted for his motion studies. Though there is nothing here that rivals the Glassworks compositions, The Photographer has its own eclectic appeal and a strong sense of presence.

The Academy of Ancient Music performs on period instruments yet doesn’t produce the kind of dry, stuffy interpretations some associate with such endeavors. For their English label they’ve been traversing the Mozart symphonies, and newly released Volume 6 (L’Oiseau Lyre D172D4) features a variety of familiar works, among them the Haffner, Paris, and Jupiter symphonies. While the use of instruments of the composer’s time provides an opportunity to hear this music as Mozart intended it to be heard, what is truly distinctive about these discs is the Academy’s distinctive musical intelligence, in performances combining lightness and grace with power and urgency.

Philippe Entrement is soloist on an LP of three French works for piano and orchestra: D’Indy’s Symphony on a French Mountain Air, Franck’s Symphonic Variations, and Fauré’s Ballade (CBS M-37269), Entrement’s confident, supple readings fit these pieces to perfection, while Charles Dutoit gets maximum orchestral coloration and playing that’s rich but not lush from the Philharmonia Orchestra.

Familiar ballet scores are heard on two recent issues. Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker is performed by the Philharmonia Orchestra under John Lanchberry, a reading of great warmth and spirit (Angel DSB-3933). Another conductor who knows how to bring the drama of a ballet alive through its music is Richard Bonynge. With the National Philharmonic playing as if they relished the opportunity, he conducts Chopin’s Les Sylphides and a work new to us, Ambroise Thomas’s eloquent Hamlet (London LDR-71083).

Gladrags (Angel S-37980) is an LP that leaves us cold. Pianists Katia and Marielle-Labeque’s jazzy performances of classic rags by Scott Joplin and a handful of others are exhilarating in their technical wizardry without showing the slightest affinity for the music.

Richard Adler is a veteran composer of musical scores for Broadway and Hollywood. His Wilderness Suite (1983) is an unpretentious piece of program music depicting various of America’s national parks, from Hawaii to North Carolina, and while it’s attractive in its ability to spin a good melody and economically to capture a mood, it lacks real distinction. Under the composer, the Utah Symphony Orchestra gives it a heartfelt performance (RCA ARL1-4726).

A record to buy and put away for the next holiday season is entitled An Old Fashioned Christmas (Nonesuch 79053-1G), a collection of 17 carols exquisitely sung a cappella by a group called The Western Wind. While most of the tunes are seasonal favorites, there are a number of unfamiliar pieces, several from the Southern Appalachian folk tradition. This is Christmas caroling at its best.

Talented young trumpet player Wynton Marsalis is represented by a pair of LP’s showing several facets of his artistry. Think of One (Columbia FC-38641) is a jazz release showing imagination in abundance and truly dazzling technique from start to finish. Equally as compelling is his recording of three virtuoso trumpet concertos, most recognizably Haydn’s Concerto in E-flat Major (CBS IM-37846). In firm control throughout, Marsalis’ playing is praiseworthy in its clarity of detail and sharp-edged articulation. The National Philharmonic is under the alert Raymond Leppard.

The group Oregon—Paul McCandless, Ralph Towner, Colin Walcott, and Glen Moore—has been recording together for 15 years, their style an eclectic hybrid embracing jazz, classical, and ethnic forms. Oregon (ECM 23796-1), their first LP together in three years, reflects some important changes in their sound, due primarily to Towner, whose synthesizers give their music a more open, ethereal feeling, and to Walcott, whose use of the sitar is blessedly limited to one cut.

Travels (ECM 1-23791), a two-disc concert set, is the Pat Metheny Group’s successor to their Grammy Award winner, Off-ramp. Lyle Mays, Dan Gottlieb, Nana Vasconselos, and Steve Rodby are featured in eight new compositions and a sampling of the songs—”San Lorenzo” and “Phase Dance” among them—that have given rise to their rapid fame.

African influences in pop and jazz have been prominent for the past several years, and now several large record companies— Island and Arista—are importing the real thing. Island, the label that introduced Jamaican music to the world, primarily through Bob Marley, is heavily promoting “King” Sunny Adé, a pop star among the Yoruba people in his native Nigeria. His music is known as juju, an intoxicating mix of traditional African rhythms, scales, and harmonies, blended with synthesizers, Reggae “dub” effects, call and response vocal styles, and even a touch of Hawaiian guitar. The result is great fun, and the music on Synchro System (Mango MLPS-9793), with Adé and his band the African Beats, lives up to its billing as “the ultimate party music.” If Ade’s music stems largely from pop roots, the music of Sakhile shows its jazz influences. On their first American release, Sakhile (Arista/Jive-Afrika JL8-8190), the music’s cool and sweet, with distinct percussive accents punching up the basic sax/keyboard/guitar configuration. Very nice.


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