Getting to the Heart of Paganini

Pag vln con front BC99582

PAGANINI: 24 Caprices for Solo Violin / Edson Scheid, violinist / Naxos 9.70264

PAGANINI: Violin Concertos Nos. 1-6 / Alexandre Dubach, violinist; Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte Carlo; Michel Sasson, Lawrence Foster, conductors / Brilliant Classics BC99582

In my review of Paganini’s Caprices as played by Rachel Barton Pine, I made it clear (or hope I did!) that her performances were an interesting excursion, a different “take” on the music using vocal bel canto techniques and applying them to the violin. But if you’re looking for Paganini’s music as he himself probably played it, you need to look elsewhere.

Why? Because Paganini was not only the most astonishing violin virtuoso of his time, he was also an exciting and dynamic player. He attacked the strings of his instrument as if he were trying to break them. As Peter Gutmann put it on his music blog,[1]

Paganini’s violin skill was sensational, perhaps the greatest ever. True, he “cheated” just a bit by flattening his bridge (to facilitate bowing from one string to another), used thin strings (to add brilliance and boost harmonics) and tuned unconventionally (to smooth the fingering of intricate passages). He owed his renown not only to raw talent, but to grueling work spurred by his parents – an overbearing father who starved him into practicing full-time, and an approving mother who viewed this cruelty as fulfilling a dream in which an angel had promised that her son would become the world’s greatest violinist.

To stretch himself, Paganini often wrote pieces even he couldn’t play and then spent months mastering them. Even for today’s luminaries, their challenges are formidable. Among their terrors are widely spaced notes (gliding between the outside strings without sounding the inner ones), a “skipping bow” (divided into up to l8 distinct notes without changing direction), sustaining a lush melody on one string while playing trills or rapid harmony on another, bowing to imitate the sound of flutes and horns, wildly chromatic runs, trilled octaves and arpeggiated guitar-like chords, all to be played with the seemingly impossible combination of furious speed and consummate grace.

Unfortunately, what Paganini accomplished requires extraordinarily hard work from even the most accomplished of violinists, even today; and because today’s violinists are trained to be cautious in performance, most of them somehow miss the sheer excitement of his music. For many years, for instance, I loved Yehudi Menuhin’s recordings of the first two Paganini Violin Concertos because of their charm and grace. Yet although Menuhin dutifully reproduced what was on the printed page, and gave the music some impetus, he lacked the sheer ferocity of the original’s own playing. Most violinists do.

That is why, as an alternate to the Pine recording of the Caprices, I am now recommending the superb 2016 recording by Edson Scheid. But don’t watch Scheid play any of the caprices on YouTube, even though the videos are there, because you’ll be disappointed. He’s as motionless as a statue when he plays, which is nothing like the pacing, tiger-like Paganini. But at least he sounds exciting, which is the whole point of a recording.

As for the concertos, they were given their finest readings ever in the 1990s by Swiss violinist Aklexandre Dubach. Dubach must have spent years mastering this music, because the way he tosses off the most difficult passages is simply astonishing. Moreover, he plays with more élan and somewhat more drive than Menuhin did. He manages to make those crazy passages of rapid, successive pizzicato notes sound as weird and savage as I believe Paganini himself did.

That being said, I didn’t much care for the music of the third and sixth concertos. All three of the discs in the Brilliant Classics set were originally issued singly on Claves, and those releases are still available. I recommend getting Vols. 1 and 2, which includes Concertos 1, 2, 4 and 5. That’s really all you need.

One thing I found interesting was the corollary between Paganini’s violin concertos and the music of Chopin. The Polish pianist-composer wrote his own piano concertos in a similar vein: tuneful but open melodies which allows for the soloist to stretch out and dominate the proceedings. In addition, there’s a tune in the first movement of the first Paganini Concerto that closely resembles the main theme from Chopin’s Fantasie-Impromptu, later adapted for the pop song I’m Always Chasing Rainbows.

The performances on these discs are superb, and both are highly recommended.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley



Roberta Peters’ Forgotten Recital

Peters cover

ROBERTA PETERS IN RECITAL / J.S. BACH: St. Matthew Passion: I follow with gladness. Ich hatte viel Bekümmerus Seufzer, BWV 21. HANDEL: L’Allegro ed il Penseroso: Sweet bird that shuns’t the noise of folly. A. SCARLATTI: Io vi miro ancor vestitle, H. 664. SCHUMANN: Liederkreis: Mondnacht. Röseliein, Röselein. Frühlingsnacht. STRAUSS: Morgen. Amor. DEBUSSY: Apparition. Fleur des blés. RAVEL: L’Enfant et les Sortilges: Arrière! le réchauffe les bons / Roberta Peters, soprano; George Trovillo, pianist; unidentified flautist / originally issued as RCA Victor LSC-2379, available for free streaming at Internet Archive

The late soprano Roberta Peters burst onto the American musical scene in the early 1950s, already a finished artist at a very young age. She was as much admired for her sober, conscientous acting style and her impeccable musicianship as she was for the brilliance and accuracy of her voice and her attractive, petite presence. Naturally, New York being New York, there was no thought of putting her in contemporary works in which her voice and presence might have actually “sold” a reactionary audience on more modern music. Oh, no, we can’t upset the people who like Tunes and Arias. And so Peters sang the standard “coloratura soprano” fare: Rosina, Lucia, Gilda, Norina etc. with an occasional Euridice in Gluck’s opera thrown in for interest. And of course she sang the Queen of the Night. Don’t they all?

But Peters in recital eschewed this stunt music in favor of real, meaty works, pieces she had come to love during her years of intense study under William Pierce Herman, a strange, eccentric vocal coach who taught his pupils to produce their voices via intercostal breathing rather than diaphragmmatic pressure. Herman ruined most of the voices he worked on, but somehow or other Peters blossomed under him. Perhaps her very small physiognomy had something to do with it, but although she had to give up the notes above high D-flat once she gave birth to her twins, she maintained her voice for nearly 40 years, quite unusual for a soubrette. I heard her twice in person during the latter part of her career: once as Zerlina in Don Giovanni opposite Sherrill Milnes (Edda Moser was the Donna Anna), and once in recital, in Cincinnati, during the mid-1980s. I was astonished at how well she had kept her voice.

This album, recorded in 1960, gives us the best of both worlds: Peters’ earlier, fresher voice and her already well-developed sense of artistry. Her performance of the well-known Handel showpiece Sweet bird that shuns’t the noise of folly is one of the crown jewels of this set with its perfectly-articulated runs and trills (although not as rapidly tossed off as Nellie Melba had done in the early years of the 20th century). But so too is her performance of I follow with gladness from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, her splendid lieder performances, and the French material by Debussy and Ravel. What a pity that the Met never saw fit to stage Ravel’s L’Enfant et les Sortilèges with Peters in the cast; she’d have been outstanding in it.

In the softer lied, particularly Schumann’s Mondnacht and Strauss’ Morgen, Peters faces the same challenge that Elisabeth Schumann had. Their voices were penny-bright, which made it hard for them to float tones in songs that required a more opaque sound. Both sopranos compensated by lightening their breath pressure somewhat. If the effect here is not quite as magical as when these songs were sung by soft-grained male singers, such as Leo Slezak or Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, they are effective performances nonetheless. Peters is predictably good in Schumann’s Röselein, Röselein and Debussy’s Apparition. Pianist George Trovillo accompanies her sensitively, and the sadly anonymous flautist is also very good.

So what happened to this recital? It went out of print, as all such albums did in those days, although perhaps quicker than the Red Seal recitals by Cesare Valletti or the highly popular Mario Lanza. By the late 1960s it was forgotten, although it did turn up livingstereobanner2now and then in New York’s used LP stores for a pretty penny. Then, in 2005, it was issued on CD for the first and only time as part of Sony Classical’s 60-CD set, The Living Stereo Collection, a hodgepodge including both vocal and instrumental discs made between 1957 and 1964, the peak years of this technology. (Ironically, this reissue omitted the 1957 Monteux-conducted Orfeo ed Eurudice featuring Risë Stevens and Peters.) And then, just like that, the album disappeared again. Forever.

And so, in the spirit of providing my readers with great art that does not deserve to be lost, I’ve posted a liink to the sound files of this superb album. And where did I get them? Why, from Sony’s “Freegal” system of (and I quote) “free and legal downloads,” provided to me by my local library. All I needed to acquire them was my library card number and a passcode. If I can get them for free, so can anyone else with a library card. So here it is, complete and intact, for your enjoyment.

You’re welcome.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Antheil’s Orchestral Works Get a New Reading


ANTHEIL: Over the Plains. Symphonies Nos. 4 & 5 / BBC Philharmonic Orchestra; John Storgårds, conductor / Chandos 10941

Having started a series of CDs on the music of Aaron Copland, the BBC Philharmonic is now embarking on a series of CDs devoted to the music of “bad boy” George Antheil. This is the first installment in that series.

To a certain extent, Antheil may be seen as the antithesis to Copland. The latter’s music was primarily tuneful, using several traditional American folk songs as its basis, whereas Anthiel’s was angular, choppy and full of unexpected surprises. Yet both composers tended to mellow out as time went on, and it’s interesting that the orchestra chose to begin its Antheil series with lae-period works. Moreover, the CD opens with the formerly unrecorded Over the Plains, which sounds so much like a Copland work from the early 1940s (borrowing, as it does, on cowboy music) that I was a bit taken aback. Yes, the orchestra plays the music in a sprightly manner, and yes, it does have some unexpected twists that only Antheil could have thought up, but still. It’s just a lightweight piece of musical fluff.

Not so the craggy, Shostakovich-like Fourth Symphony, subtitled by the year in which it was written, “1942.” Indeed, one might almost hear this as a more tightly constructed, Americanized version of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, given its American premiere that year by Arturo Toscanini. In the first movement, Antheil even presages Shostakovich—whose score he couldn’t possibly have heard or seen at the time of writing—by utilizing a quasi-French dance-like melody, as the Russian composer did with the “Maxim’s” song in his Seventh. One difference is that it comes much earlier in the score, in fact just a couple of minutes into the first movement. Another is that Antheil intensifies its impact by slowly tightening up the tempo and adding clashing harmonies and shrill trumpet and flute passages, until finally it assumes almost Mahlerian stature. Interestingly, the composer himself bristled at suggestions that he had been influenced by the Russian composer’s Seventh Symphony, pointing out that the theme he used in the first movement came from his own 1930 opera Transatlantic. But it’s still a fascinating parallel. Typically of Anthiel, he had to throw this back in the critics’ faces, writing, “I am not going to change my style to please said critics: finders is keepers.”

The orchestration, however, is very typically Antheil, full of bright sonorities and even a xylophone madly jangling behind the brass and winds as the theme becomes more martial and threatening. The very Mahler-like second movement “Allegro” has a startling theme and, later, the wonderful use of a counter-melody played by the basses in bowed eighth notes against a more angular tune played by a solo flute. This eventually gives way to a more relaxed, tonal theme which he develops quite interestingly. I should point out that although Theodor Kuchar’s recording of this symphony with the Ukraine National Symphony Orchestra is somewhat faster in tempo, I actually prefer Storgårds’ phrasing, which is more lyrical and more finely shaded in dynamics. Storgårds is also more dramatic in his use of the musical material.

The third movement turns away from references to Shostakovich or Mahler; both melodically and rhythmically, it is closer to the Antheil of the late 1920s/early ‘30s, although it is very light in both tone and orchestration. In the fourth we return to a more dramatic frame of mind, its initial theme interrupted by brash, double-time figures played in an equally brash manner by the brass, winds and that darn xylophone again. It comes to a very dramatic, crashing, yet positive end.

The Fifth Symphony is actually the second that Antheil wrote with that title. It seems that he initially wrote a very sorrowful, angst-ridden work with that title, but put it aside and never formally adopted it as one of his symphonic works. In its place, he wrote this continuous, jolly work—its subtitle is “Joyous”—which premiered under Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1948. Shortly thereafter it was performed at Carnegie Hall, where Virgil Thomson reviewed it quite positively. There are some auditors who hear in it a “copy” of Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony, but I find it considerably different, particularly in its construction which is much better and less rambling than the Prokofiev work. (Others hear it as being influenced by the Shostakovich Fifth, but I don’t hear that at all.) Oddly, I found my attention drifting during the second movement. It’s well written but doesn’t really say very much. I’m glad Thomson liked it.

The third movement bears some resemblance to the “Game of Pairs” from Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, but Antheil becomes a bit too garrulous and repetitious here. Overall, it’s a good piece, and Storgårds certainly conducts it well, but I just wasn’t convinced by it.

A split review, then. Over the Plains, pretty good. The Fourth Symphony, excellent. The Fifth Symphony, meh. What can I tell you? That’s how it struck me!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Molly Kien’s Music Fluid, Moving


KIEN: Pyramids.* Song of Britomartis.+ Smarginatura* / Västerås Sinfonietta; *Eva Ollikainen, +Anna-Maria Helsing, conductors; Laura Stephenson, harpist / db Productions CD173

Molly Kien is a 38-year-old American composer who moved to Sweden in 2002. This was my initial exposure to her music and, while my very first impression of the opening of Pyramids was of floating sounds that didn’t go anywhere, I let the music continue and discovered something wild and wonderful.

At about the three-minute mark, the music of Pyramids opens up and blossoms. All those little “fills” one heard earlier from the clarinet now becomes the impetus for a new theme that suddenly develops into something quite powerful and moving. Little violin figures play across the top line of the music, trumpets and tympani work their way in and out of the orchestral texture, and before long we have a fairly complex and powerful piece of music. Eventually the busy activity recedes and a solo viola plays a slow, still theme while the rest of the orchestra makes commentary around it. The tempo doubles as the trumpets and tymps re-enter, now making a more dramatic, almost sinister statement. The volume recedes, slow-moving whole notes float across the musical landscape, but edgy string figures and pounding tympani continue to push the music along. Edgy flute tremolos suddenly end the piece—what a wild ride!

But if you thought Pyramids wild, wait until you hear Song of Britomartis. Here, Kien seems to be combining a somber ground bass (played by basses and cellos) from the 18th century with strange, edgy figures which swirl around in the winds and brass, playing together. The juxtaposition of these two disparate musical styles somehow coalesces, particularly when the other instruments swell up from the bottom of their registers and move, as if in a wave, slowly up the scale together. This then recedes, allowing solo harpist Laura Stephenson to play a secondary theme that sounds both prescient and a bit sinister. Soft, almost hushed string tremolos work behind the harp, along with sprinkles from triangle and other similar percussion, as Kien creates a unique soundscape that captivates listeners and sucks them in. And here Kien manages to keep her balancing act up for nearly 20 minutes! Her ear for color is extraordinary: listen to the way she uses the lower reed instruments or sometimes maintains a thread of music with the barest of orchestration. My readers who follow my blog know full well that I am not a fan of “ambient classical” or “neo-classical chamber,” but Kien finds a way of making her strange, floating music work because it is never stagnant or predictable. It keeps on moving, shifting and developing, in the process pulling the listener along with it. At about the 15:10 mark, strange, slow-moving bitonal chords flow behind the solo harpist, shifting and leading the ear further and further away from the established tonality. This is fascinating music. Little flurries of orchestral activity come and go as the music nears its conclusion.

Smarginatura begins with slithering figues played by what sounds like a combination of soft trumpets and clarinets; other high instruments sprinkle the music with their color until a forlorn oboe wends its way in and out of the ongoing texture. Having nearly 25 minutes to play in, Kien continues to add rhythms and textures as her music progresses. She plays around with minimalism in the form of a repeated string figure, but since the underlying music continually shifts and morphs it’s not really minimalist. Eventually a busier, double-time string figure comes on the scene, eventually forcing the rest of the orchestra to pick up its pace. Eventually this tug-of-war between the double time string figure and the slower theme played by the orchestra leads to a great deal of wind section chattering before it melts away, leaving floated clarinet and string chords (in different keys) playing against one another. The strings temporarily recede, leaving the winds to carry on for a while, but not for long. Staccato trumpets figures enter the picture, followed in turn by snare drum and lower winds; then another relaxation into an entirely different string figure accompanied by chimes and triangle. To a certain extent, Kien’s orchestration is as much if not more of a component of her music than the harmonic-melodic movement; one really cannot conceive of these pieces sounding the same, or even being as effective, played by smaller forces or different instruments. The motoric shifts in accent, tempo and meter between the different sections of the orchestra have a very specific function in her scores and, by extension, a very specific emotional impact on the listener. It’s kind of like imagining Ligeti’s Atmospheres played by a piano trio. The notes might indeed be identical, but the sound and impact would be radically different.

This is a fine, interesting album of music by a composer I hope to hear much more of in the future.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Gregory Mertl’s Music Dynamic, Humorous

Mertl cover

MERTL: Afterglow of a Kiss.* Empress. Piano Concerto+ / *Immanuel Davis, flautist; +Solungga Liu, pianist; University of Minnesota Wind Ensemble; Craig Kirchhoff, conductor / Bridge 9489

I have to say, right off the bat, that it is SO refreshing to hear a modern composer whose music is playful and actually fun to listen to. It’s not that Gregory Mertl, who received his doctorate in composition from the Eastman Schoolof Music and once worked with Henri Dutilleux and Mauricio Kagel at Tanglewood, is not a “real” classical composer. On the contrary, his music is both heavily detailed and imaginatively developed. But it’s also enjoyable and a little wacky, which I really like. Just listen to the opening track, Afterglow of a Kiss, for an example of what I mean. All of the elements that go into a well-written “serious” work are there, and Mertl’s scoring for wind ensemble is extremely interesting, but there’s also an element of sheer fun, such as in the jocular, double-time solo flute passage near the end, that makes you smile.

Moreover, this is even true of such slower, moodier works as Empress, scored lightly for flute, French horn and muted trumpets with occasional soft wind chords interjecting. It’s a serious work but not oppressive; it moves on light feet and lifts your spirits rather than depressing them. Note how sparingly he uses such lower instruments as the tuba, or the way he leavens the mood with harp, flute and oboe passages. Later on in the piece, the tempo increases and the mood lightens up considerably, while towards the end it becomes quite dramatic. This is, quite simply, fine music.

Interestingly, the Piano Concerto opens with the same jocular mood (and scoring) as Afterglow, using the piano as another, if more prominent, member of the percussion section. Much of the music written for the soloist is of an obbligato nature, playing fills and chords rather than dominating with a specific line of its own. Themes and even development sections break off suddenly, leaving the listener hanging, until a new tack or direction is picked up. The piano plays a succession of block chords while a solo trumpet plays staccato eighths against a xylophone. It’s really a quirky and unusual piece, at times a bit confusing but always likable. Running single-note figures in the right hand set up a brief canon or fugue-like passage near the end of the first movement, which ends abruptly on a crashing chord.

The second movement, still and quiet by contrast, begins with the piano and the winds alternating chords. This mysterious, almost allegorical conversation goes on for some time, with the orchestra expanding its chords to produce a quasi-melodic line, but the music rarely flows easily, melodically speaking. Rather, it moves along in stages and stutters, all of which coalesce structurally but challenge the listener to follow the music’s thread. This movement is not fun; even the loud passage in the middle is riddled with clashing harmonies and a feeling of unease.

The third movement is, again, back in Mertl’s more whimsical mood, playing the soloist against the orchestra in a sort of Kurt Weill-ish vein. Brief solo spots by the alto sax and other winds come and go throughout, and again the piano plays figures that are more obbligato-like than “soloistic.” Eventually, odd syncopated figures are played by the trombones against a backbeat of cymbal crashes; the music continues to morph and develop in its own quirky way, including what sounded at first like a piano cadenza but instead changed into a dialogue with the xylophone and winds. Eventually a grander, more “classical” feel comes into the music, although we still have some chattering brass in the background; the piano plays descending chime chords and the wind band pushes its way off into the sunset.

This is a very fine release, well worth exploring!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Nachoff’s Ethereal Trio Debuts on CD

Quinsin Nachoff Ethereal Trio Album Cover

NACHOFF: Clairvoyant Jest. Imagination Reconstruction. Gravitas. Subliminal Circularity. Push-Pull Topography. Portrait in Sepia Tones / Quinsin Nachoff’s Ethereal Trio: Nachoff, t-sax; Mark Helias, bs; Dan Weiss, dm / Whirlwind Recordings (no number)

Here is a relatively new jazz trio playing in an older but still vital vein. Tenor saxist Quinsin Nachoff and his rhythm section are very much in the same line and genre as the old Charles Mingus Trios, playing music with fluid harmony that teases the listener as he or she travels through the set. It doesn’t hurt a bit that Mark Helias is one of the finest bassists I’ve heard since Mingus himself. His big, rich tone, outstanding ear and ability to lead or follow Nachoff in whatever explorations he pursues places him very much in line with the legendary bassist-composer.

The result is music that continually engages the mind as it pleases the senses. Without having seen any of the scores for these pieces, all of which are originals, I don’t know now much was written in advance, but it sounds as if not much beyond opening theme statements were worked out. Despite that, there is a remarkable flow and continuity to each and every piece, an inner logic that works as a composition regardless of how much is improvised, and that is the mark of very few and extremely talented musicians.

In fact, upon careful listening to this CD, I really wasn’t sure who was taking the lead and who was following. Helias’ compositional sense, not only in his solos but in the specific notes and intervals he chooses when following Nachoff, is so strong that these pieces could as well have been written by him as by Nachoff. Not that there’s anything inferior in Nachoff’s playing; on the contrary, he is on top of everything that Helias is laying down, two minds following one another in perfect synch. As a player, Nachoff generally sticks to a classic tenor sound, not too brash and only occasionally playing outside, yet this feeling of comfort in his tone belies the imagination he uses in improvising.

One of the most striking pieces on the album, Gravitas, is the most fluid in tempo and construction, at different times allowing the two soloists extended periods to stretch out. I should add that drummer Dan Weiss is a remarkable timekeeper, too, but that one’s attention is continually drawn to the sax and bass by virtue of their ability to play specific pitches. (Had Weiss wanted to participate melodically, he could have learned to play the “hot tympani” as Vic Berton did back in the 1920s and ‘30s, but almost no one followed Berton into that hellpit because the tympani are extremely difficult to keep in pitch, particularly when playing jazz solos on them.) Helias’ solo, combining a number of playing techniques, again steals the show on this track.

Subliminal Circularity is one of the furthest-out pieces on this set, with Weiss playing backbeats against the opposing meter of sax and bass. This one becomes more of a three-way conversation, at one point featuring all three musicians trying to circle around the beat without actually attacking it. More rhythmic irregularity, and interplay, is featured in Push-Pull Topology, in which Weiss leads on the drums while it is Helias who pushes back against his beat, disregarding it in favor of a nice walking pattern that sets up Nachoff perfectly.

The closing number, Portrait in Sepia Tones, is the most free in tempo (and a slow tempo at that) as well as the most fluid in tonality. Helias again leads things off on the bass, this time a cappella for quite some time, and even after Weiss enters the picture it is Helias who drives the piece, covering his instrument from top to bottom in a remarkable manner. Weiss’ fluid drum solo adds to the ambience, after which Nachoff enters the picture above the other two instruments. From this point on the interplay between them—sometimes solo, other times in duo—is simply astonishing. The two lead voices play, more or less, opposite each other, each creating different yet interweaving lines that are simple in terms of the number of notes played but complex in the way they interact. It’s also amazing, considering how polyphonic this music becomes, how well they continue to swing, although in the final section of the piece they arrive at a more regular, if funky, 4/4 beat for a time.

Nachoff’s album is due out on May 19, which at this point is only a few days away. I recommend that you order a copy as soon as it’s available.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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The Strange Musical Mind of Piotr Szewczyk


BLISS POINT / SZEWCZYK: Twisted Dances for Oboe, Violin, Cello & Piano. Conundrum for Violin & Viola. Piano Trio No. 1. Half-Diminished Scherzo for String Quartet. Images from a Journey.* Furioso for String Trio. Very Angry Birds for Violin & Piano. Nimbus for Two Violins. Bliss Point for Violin, Clarinet, Cello and Piano+ / Piotr Szewczyk, violinist/*conductor; Bold City Contemporary Ensemble; Trio Solis; +Nathan Aspinall, conductor / Navona NV6093

Don’t ask me how “food science” played a part in the creation of the music on this album, but the publicity blurb claims this is so. I’m not even sure if food science is real or bogus; its desscription on Wikipedia leaves me skeptical: “the discipline in which the engineering, biological, and physical sciences are used to study the nature of foods, the causes of deterioration, the principles underlying food processing, and the improvement of foods for the consuming public.” Which is a convoluted way of saying that food can be genetically modified, mixing different foods and seasonings is chemistry, it rots when it gets too old, and there is a time window for flavor. Not much.

But violinist-composer Piotr Szewczyk apparently used a “bliss point” in a culinary sense, embodying “the technique’s saturation of a flavor just before the point of diminished potency” and transferring these sensations over to music. Let’s see how he made out, shall we?

The first group, of Twisted Dances, includes a “Polytonal Polka,” “12 Tone-al Waltz,” “Jig With a Twist” and “Effin’ Tarantella.” These are played by Szewczyk on violin with members of the Bold City Contemporary Ensemble: Scott Erickson on oboe, Brian Magnus on cello and Galen Dean Peiskee, Jr. on piano. This is whimsical music, rhythmically regular but tonally skewed. Despite their whimsical nature and brief duration, these pieces are exceptionally well written, displaying a firm grasp of structure in addition to a great sense of humor. Szewczyk also has his own style of scoring, using the cello as “ground bass” while moving the three other instruments around, placing them differently above one another to produce different-sounding chords. More often than not, the oboe is used primarily for color, and this adds considrably to his music’s unusual flavor. “Effin’ Tarantella” is especially virtuosic in character, but also surprisingly complex for a “light” work written for an odd combination of instruments.

Conundrum for Violin & Viola is a much calmer piece but no less fascinating, beginning with a deceptively calm opening theme before moving into more aggressively rhythmic and harmonic territory. Harsh dissonance and aggressive downbow attacks make for some edgy, George Antheil-like listening. (I wonder if this was inspired by hot and spicy Cantonese or Mexican fare.) This duo morphs almost without a break into the first movement of the Piano Trio, which sounds like a strange, aggressive tango of sorts, though there are moments of relaxation sprinkled throughout. The hyper-tango feeling returns, albeit with an extra beat or half-beat thrown in for good measure just to disorient the toe-tapping listener. The second movement, in E-flat, has a decidedly blues-jazz feel to it, but in an asymmetrical rhythm that moves around as the piece morphs and develops. It then moves almost immediately into the finale, simply marked “Energetic,” which sort of picks up where the second leaves off but dismisses the bluesy bias. This one sounds like a fast-food lunch in a boiler factory, though relaxing a bit towards the end.

Half-Diminished Scherzo lives up to its name, and not just harmonically; the rhythm stutters and trips over its own feet as it tries to fool the listener into thinking they have a handle on it. The slow, eerie middle section sounds like a calliope with bent and out-of-tune pipes.

Images From a Journey for flute, clarinet, cello and piano consists of four movements that encompass a mere seven and a half minutes. You certainly can’t accuse Szewczyk of being over-garrulous! Ironically the second movement here, “Moonlight passacaglia,” is one of the loveliest things on the record, gentle and lyrical despite some off-rhythm figures sprinkled throughout. “Night’s Embrace,” barely more than a minute and a half long, is conversely a very dark, forbidding piece, emphasizing the sounds of the bass clarinet and alto flute. The finale, “Gypsy Ballroom,” sounds more like a cat dancing on the edge of a kitchen counter. Curiously, Furioso sounds more jolly and upbeat than furious, but it’s still a fascinating piece, full of strange contrasts of tempo and harmony. The bizarre slow section sounds as if the strings are tuning up.

Very Angry Birds is played by violin (Szewczyk) and piano (Ileana Fernandez). They are angry indeed; perhaps they ran out of Michele Obama’s tasteless school lunches to feed on. Or maybe they HAD to eat them. In either case, their food science is definitely out of whack. Nimbus is another intense duet, this time for two violins, with several varied tempo changes while the finale, Bliss Point, presents a quartet of violin, clarinet, cello and piano. Here, Szewczyk backs off from his typically edgy style to produce a first movement of curious but somewhat lyrical melodic-harmonic vein. The second movement is even more lyrical, in fact the most lyrical thing on this CD, even with a rhythmically busy middle section, while the third and last part is a crazy-quilt of rhythms and colors, rarely coalescing into a discernible or regular meter.

This is an absolutely splendid and fascinating album, highly recommended for all those who enjoy odd and highly creative contemporary music!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Carwithen’s Bold Scores Conducted by Hickox Reissued

Carwithen cover

CARWITHEN: ODTAA. Piano Concerto* Bishop Rock. Suffolk Suite / *Howard Shelley, pianist; London Symphony Orchestra; Richard Hickox, conductor / Chandos CHAN10058

In order to retain as many recordings by the late, great conductor Richard Hickox in their catalog as possible, Chandos has been on a reissue spree of his CDs. This is the most recent entry, a fascinating cross-section of the works of Doreen Carwithen, whose music is rarely heard on this side of the pond (as they say). The original catalog number was CHAN9524 and all of these were world premiere recordings.

Carwithen’s music was typically British of the mid-20th century: bold, colorful, and employing themes that either sound like folk music or at least like Vaughan Williams-Holst-Bridge-Britten-type adaptations of such music. The album opens with the oddly-titled ODTAA, which stands for One Damn Thing After Another; you just have to like a composer with a sense of humor like that! In its eight-minute length, Carwithen explores a surprisingly wide range of moods, but it’s a relatively lightweight piece.

By contrast, the Piano Concerto of 1948—though assuming a similarly jocular mood—is much more substantive in quality. The solo piano almost seems to be commenting on and playing “fills” in the orchestral score, at least at first. As we progress along, the solo part becomes much more vigorous and dramatic, and in time leads the orchestra rather than the other way round. Carwithen’s command of structure is quite evident here, balancing two themes in an interesting manner. It was really a shame that British music publishers, and concertgoers, began to turn their back on her for no other reason than that she was a woman, as she evidently had some bold and colorful things to say. The second movement is essentially along, involved dialogue between the pianist and a solo violin, accompanied by muted strings. Pianist Howard Shelley, a name formerly unknown to me, does a splendid job with the score.

Carwithen did catch one break: J. Arthur Rank selected her as the very first composer for his Apprenticeship Scheme to learn to write film music. Carwithen went on to write music for more than 30 films, many of them documentaries like Teeth of the Wind and the official coronation film for Queen Elizabeth II, Elizabeth is Queen. Yet though her style is a bit late-Romantic, it is by no means treacly or banal. So much is evident from the last movement of the concerto, using bold orchestral chords in block style to state the theme which is then virtuosically developed by the piano (with orchestral commentary).

Bishop Rock (1952) was dedicated to a famous lighthouse at the furthest outside point of England, the last sight seagoers have of land as they shove off. The concert overture, sor such it is, was meant to reflect the lighthouse in storm and calm. Beginning with a bold horn call, the music at first slashes its way across the mind, recalling the brutality of stormy seas. It’s obvious why she responded so well to Rank’s program for documentary film music, as she thought in terms of colorful sound images. After a calm middle section, the music works itself up to a fine frenzy at the 5:30 mark, slashing and burning its way to the finale. What a great piece!

By the time she wrote the Suffolk Suite in 1964, Carwithen was pretty much out of music as a full-time composer, working as amanuensis and literary secretary for William Alwyn, who had been her professor at the Royal Academy of Music and whom she later married. The suite was composed by request of the music master of Framlingham College as something the boys could play when royalty came to visit. This is the simplest and least dramatic work on the album, yet the “Orford Ness” movement has a certain charm and “Suffolk Morris” has a nice Irish jig feel about it. The last movement, marked “Framlingham Castle: Alla marcia,” is the closest to her regular, dramatic style.

By and large, Doreen Carwithen had a definite talent and could well have developed even further had she been encouraged and not discouraged. We’ll never know what fine music she might have written, but the works on this album give us an indication of where she was headed. Both performances and sound quality are superb.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Pine Finds New Ways to Play Paganini


PAGANINI: Introduction and Variations in G on Paisiello’s “Nel cor più non me sento.” 24 Caprices for Solo Violin. Duo Merveille (Duet for One). Caprice d’Adieu. BARTON PINE: Introduction, Theme and Variations on “God Defend New Zealand” / Rachel Barton Pine, violinist / Avie AV2374

When I first started listening to these new recordings of the Paganini Caprices, I felt a little disoriented. The sound quality seemed very dry, the violin so close to the microphone, that I thought it would tend to impact the performance quality. Going through my mind was James Ehnes’ superb recording, which for me had just the right amount of “juice” around the violin tone. Yet as I continued listening, I began to follow Rachel Barton Pine’s style and approach more carefully. Although her tempos are just a shade slower than Ehnes’, her articulation is crystal clear and her style is, if anything, much closer to the bel canto ideal which was Paganini’s inspiration.

Pine (which she told me she prefers to be called…her former label, Çedille, insisted on including her maiden name of Barton because that’s the name that made her famous) approaches this music with a more varied feel for rhythm than Ehnes who, good as he is, tended to be a bit more metronomic. She bends notes, introduces occasional light moments of rubato, and otherwise pushes the music in such a way that one begins to hear the “voice” of a great bel canto diva like Kathleen Battle or Marlis Peterson singing these lines. The liner notes tell us that for this recording, Pine played the “ex-Bazzini, ex-Soldat” Guarneri del Jesù violin from 1742, made in the same year and place as Paganini’s own violin. It has the typically rich, full Guarneri tone we have come to expect from such instruments.

If Pine had recorded nothing in her career but the opening Introduction and Variations in G on Paisiello’s “Nel cor più non mi sento” that introduces this collection, she would be a major name to reckon with in the violin world. Here she combines the elegance of Menuhin with the drive of a Heifetz, producing a performance that is just perfect in both articulation and musical feeling. Yes, I still wish her instrument were recorded with a little more juice around it, just a bit, mind you, but as the recording continues you become more and more engrossed in what she is doing. Occasionally, as in Caprice No. 4 (the long one marked “Moderato”), Pine even uses a bit of portamento, which is historically and stylistically correct (so there, you HIP fanatics!).

As for the music, it is generally quite good. Of all the violinist-composers between Vivaldi and Ysaÿe, who were major creators (as was, later on, George Enescu), Paganini was by far the most interesting and original. Although he was of course famous for his almost unbelievable command of violinistic fireworks (which nowadays might win him third prize in the Wieniawski Competition), he was also as famous for his command of expression and legato, which is what Hector Berlioz emphasized when he wrote the viola part in Harold in Italy for him. (Regarding the famous story that Paganini refused to play the work because it wasn’t flashy enough, that is true, but he had only looked over the viola part. When he finally heard the whole work in performance, he rushed to the stage afterwards and embraced Berlioz, calling him a “genius,” and remained his good friend until his death.) Some of these pieces are so good that, if you orchestrated them, they could easily stand scrutiny as symphonic movements (i.e., Caprice No. 7 in A minor, marked “Posato,” so well constructed it still holds up today).

Thus there is a fine line—a very fine line—between Ehnes’ equally outstanding performances and Pine’s. Ehnes does not ignore the lyrical side of Paganini, but he doesn’t revel in it as much as Pine does. Pine doesn’t ignore the flashy side, but it’s not the principal motivator of her performances. I found that Ehnes’ recording impresses you in a more visceral way upon first listening, whereas your first reaction to Pine’s might be that she isn’t forceful enough, but upon closer scrutiny it is Pine who stays with you. She has so masterfully worked out the melos of these scores that she almost becomes the music. She must have played, slept with, eaten and drunk this music for years prior to recording it, because it sounds like part of her DNA. The notes indicate that she was introduced to these pieces at age six, but did not perform them until her early 20s, when she played all 24 in a single concert (and has done so several times since). Listen to the way she slithers through the tricky passages of the Caprice No. 16 in G minor, a whole universe of sound in less than a minute and a half. She teases the rhythm and uses judicious slides to enhance the bel canto feeling; and there is even more of this in the Caprice No. 17. There’s so much love in her playing of this music that it becomes infectious.

As Pine used the Introduction and Paisiello Variations as an overture to the Caprices, she gives us the Duet for One and Caprice d’Adieu as encores. The former is undoubtedly one of Paganini’s oddest pieces, using part of the violin in a conventionally melodic manner and part of it like a guitar. I’m not sure how many readers know that Paganini, in addition to playing the viola, was also a first-rate guitarist, but didn’t play it in public or make a big deal of it. (He also toured for some time with a very flamboyant Gypsy guitarist whose style, by all descriptions, was very similar to that of Django Reinhardt.) The latter piece is ebullient and lightweight, just a cute piece to delight audiences without employing too much in the way of fireworks.

The final track is a piece that Pine wrote herself, the Introduction, Theme and Variations on “God Save New Zealand,” for the last concert of her first tour of that country in 2000. It has all the hallmarks of a Paganini piece, suggesting that she might indeed have this music in her DNA as I suggested above! The piece also includes moments of lovely chordal passages in the manner of Fritz Kreisler. Hmm…would it be too much to suggest that she tackle some of Kreisler’s best pieces in an upcoming CD?

One final, personal, comment. Must classical labels put female artists on the covers in ridiculous poses, their heads sideways or upside-down so their luxurious hair can flow across the cover? I mean, what’s the point? I seriously doubt that someone seeing this Pine MozartCD cover online will buy the recording if the music isn’t something they already like or think they may like, and the majority of those attracted to goofy model-like poses normally don’t listen to Bach or Paganini. And someone who likes this music isn’t necessarily going to enjoy seeing this pose every time they reach for the album. So please, Avie, do us a favor and stick to normal poses (the one on her Mozart Concerto album was just perfect), as you would a male artist. EMI indulged in poses just as bad if not worse for Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, and I doubt if they ever helped sell them one more album as a result.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Michael Gielen Tears Up Bartók & Stravinsky

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MICHAEL GIELEN EDITION Vol. 5 / BARTÓK: The Wooden Prince – Suite.1 Concerto for Orchestra.1 4 Pieces for Orchestra.1 Violin Concerto No. 1.1,4 Music for Strings, Percussion & Celesta.1 Dance Suite for Orchestra.3 Piano Concerto No. 2.3,5 The Miraculous Mandarin.1,7 STRAVINSKY: Symphony in Three Movements.1 Symphony in C.1 Symphony of Psalms.1,6 The King of the Stars.2,8 Canticum Sacrum for Tenor, Baritone, Chorus & Orchestra.1,8,9,10 Agon (Ballet).1 Requiem Canticles for Contralto, Bass, Chorus & Orchestra.1,8,10,11 Variations for Orchestra.1 Pulcinella.2,12 Apollon Musagète.2 Scherzo à la Russe1 / 4Christian Ostertag, violinist; 5Robert Leonardy, pianist; 12Edda Moser, soprano; 11Stella Doufexis, mezzo-soprano; 9Christian Elsner, 12Werner Hollweg, tenors; 10Rudolf Rosen, 12Barry McDaniel, baritones; 6WDR Rundfunkchor Köln; 7Anton Webern Chor Freiburg; 8SWR Vokalensemble Stuttgart; 1SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg; 2Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR; 3Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Saarbrücken; Michael Gielen, conductor / SWR Music 19023CD

The Michael Gielen Edition continues apace from SWR Music, this time with performances of two composers who were red meat and potatoes to the great conductor, Bela Bartók and Igor Stravinsky. If my reaction to Vol. 4 was a bit mixed, I have absolutely no qualms about Vol. 5. These performances are so good, from start to finish, that they will absolutely blow you away and make you wonder what you liked in the earlier recordings of these works by Fritz Reiner, Hans Rosbaud, Claudio Abbado, Georg Solti or even Stravinsky himself.

And mind you, it’s not that Reiner, Rosbaud etc. were mediocre or uninteresting conductors. On the contrary, they were deeply dedicated professionals for whom this music was also their life’s blood. It’s just that for Gielen, at least in these specific recordings, the intensity was turned up from red hot to incandescent white titanium. There is just so much more you hear in these thrice-familiar works, such as the Bartók Concerto for Orchestra. Miraculous Mandarin and Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, or in Stravinsky’s Symphonies, Canticles and ballets, that they absolutely take your breath away. And in the works that aren’t performed very often, such as the 4 Pieces for Orchestra, The Wooden Prince Suite, and Stravinsky’s King of the Stars and Scherzo à la Russe, Gielen’s performances are virtually peerless. No one else even comes close.

Some reviewers have found Gielen’s performances of the Concerto for Orchestra and Music for Strings etc. wanting due to what they perceive as a lack of menace, but menace isn’t what Gielen was after here. He brings out more melos in the music, just as Wilhelm Furtwängler did with Bartók’s Violin Concerto No. 2 with Menuhin. It all depends on your perspective. Furtwängler was a big-name, internationally-known conductor whose performances, no matter how quirky and off the score, were inevitably hailed as works of genius. Gielen, who spent most of his career in Germany, is thought of as an isolated European hot-house flower. If you think of his Music for Strings etc. as a modern digital version of Guido Cantelli’s old performance with the NBC Symphony, you’ll have an idea how this goes.

Of course, some of the extra pizazz in these recordings comes from the fact that although those earlier conductors had good sonics for their time (Reiner especially, in the old RCA Living Stereo days, or Solti for Decca), the almost 3D impact of these recordings (most of them dating from 2004 to 2014) is due to the greater improvements in sound over the decades, but a great performance is a great performance and no amount of sonic enhancement can make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Plus, unlike the sober-sided Reiner, Gielen actually has a ball with the more outré sections of the Bartók Concerto for Orchestra. The way he conducts this—and most of the other works in this set—makes it sound easy, and professional conductors will assure you it is anything BUT easy.

I’m sorry now that I never attended any of Gielen’s rehearsals with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra back in the 1980s, but like so many great conductors he preferred a closed-door policy in such matters. I would hear stories from the musicians in the orchestra how much they hated him because he really made them work and sweat, not coast through their work, but the proof is always in the pudding and Gielen’s performances were almost always of a high intensity. In that respect he was remarkably similar to Arturo Toscanini, and though the two conductors’ tastes were often vastly different I think they would have been a mutual admiration society if they had the chance to hear each other.

It’s particularly interesting to hear Gielen conduct the unusual works here. In the Bartók portion of the program, the largest of the lesser-known pieces is the Violin Concerto No. 1, composed for his then-girlfriend-violinist who threw him over once he discovered Magyar folk music and radically changed his style. Gielen conducts this music, and violinist Christian Ostertag plays it, with a great deal of sentiment, drawing out the inherent sadness of the first movement like a man on the brink of tears who cannot cry. The second movement, albeit less spiky than his later works, does indeed contain some angular harmonic movement, certainly more than was probably acceptable to his beau.

But fluidity of movement is a constant, and not a variable, in these amazing performances. Part of this, particularly in the recordings with the SWR Symphony of Baden-Baden and Freiburg—Gielen’s “personal” orchestra for several decades—where he had so sensitized the musicians that they could almost breathe along with him. Even so, it’s astounfing to hear how well they play, particularly when you think of other modern maestri and their penchant for conducting “objectively,” just “letting the music speak for itself,” which in the end says nothing more that notes following notes and phrases following each other. What the music “says” under such circumstances is usually nothing, because without a specific point of view the notes do not “leap off the page,” as Toscanini liked to describe it. One example among many of Gielen’s approach is the clarity and sheer ferocity of the “Allegro molto” from Bartók’s Dance Suite, one of the earliest performances in the set (1967). No one conducts it like this…but they should.

Gielen’s conception of Bartók’s Second Piano Concerto is radically different from any other version you have heard, or are likely to hear. From the very start, the staccato phrasing of both the orchestra and soloist place it more in line with Stravinsky’s neoclassical works than Bartók’s first piano concerto. Compare this to the equally excellent performance by pianist Peter Donohoe with Simon Rattle and the City of Birmingham Orchestra, or Stefan Kocsis’ recording with Adam Fischer, and you’ll hear what I mean. Donohoe-Rattle come closer than Kocsis-Fischer to what Christian Ostertag and Gielen achieve here, but this is still a much more dynamic reading. The slow movement is almost incredibly eerie-sounding, hushed with expectation, the notes played by both orchestra and pianist coming forth almost involuntarily, as if they were loath to make a sound but had to anyway. The hushed, muted quality of the string playing is extraordinary. This is the first release of this great performance. Other debut recordings included in this set are The Miraculous Mandarin and Stravinsky’s King of the Stars, Variations for Orchestra, Pulcinella and Apollon Musagete.

Needless to say, The Miraculous Mandarin is also hyper-intense, fully into the spirit of the composer’s concept of almost mad-sounding music conveying the brutal murder of the mandarin: “Hellish noise, clashing, clanging and honking.” It’s as if you are hearing this music for the first time in your life; each scene is as sharply-etched as if it were ripped from a window with a glass cutter. This is as good, if not greater, a performance than the famed Adam Fischer recording, and I also greatly admire Fischer as a conductor.

With scarcely a break for breath, we then plunge headlong into the neoclassic world of Stravinsky. Has there ever been a more intense performance of the Symphony in 3 Movements? If so, I’ve never heard it. The music slashes and burns its way across one’s consciousness, almost duplicating the “hellish noise” of Bartók’s Miraculous Mandarin opening. The on-the-edge bowing of the strings, even in soft passages, makes the music sound ominous and gripping. And something I don’t think I ever noticed before: there’s a wind theme in the second movement that was lifted almost note-for-note by Prokofiev for his ballet Romeo and Juliet. Check it out and see if you don’t agree!

By and large, Stravinsky’s unusual scoring—which always seemed to favor the winds, and specifically the flutes, oboes and clarinets—is right up Gielen’s alley. He is very much at home in this kind of music, which makes it a pity that he never seems to have recorded Oedipus Rex, Perséphone, L’Histoire du Soldat or Les Noces. But what we have is surely extraordinary, and although I noticed numerous little touches in these performances that were clearer or more intense than in others I’ve heard, I will simply generalize so that this review doesn’t run a dozen or more pages. The somewhat thin-sounding chorus in the Symphony of Psalms, for instance, works superbly because the voices do not overwhelm the instruments or vice-versa.

In Canticum Sacrum we are presented with two vocalists. Tenor Christian Elsner has the technique to sing the music but is slightly unsteady on every sustained tone whereas baritone Rudolf Rosen sounds surprisingly like Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in places.. It is, nevertheless, a fine reading of one of Stravinsky’s most-neglected scores. One of the more interesting aspects of the tenor part is that it calls for just those sort of “divisions” that Peter Pears, who had sung Oedipus Rex under the composer’s direction six years before the premiere of Canticum Sacrum, could do so very well, yet the original soloists in the premiere were Richard Lewis and Gérard Souzay. Those of us familiar with Hans Rosbaud’s recording of Agon will find Gielen’s reading surprisingly brisk yet fluid, moving easily through those gnarly passages that were the bane of Rosbaud’s orchestra, ironically that of the Südwestfunk de Baden-Baden. But the level of orchestral playing has improved dramatically throughout the 20th and early 21st centuries, so this shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise.

Gielen’s superb performance of the Requiem Canticles rivals the great recording left us by Robert Craft with the Gregg Smith Singers, and his performance of the Variations for Orchestra are preceded by a brief spoken introduction by Gielen himself. Since I don’t speak German, I don’t know what he’s saying, but his tone of voice is light and the audience cracks up laughing in two places. I was absolutely delighted by this sterling performance of Pulcinella, played as it was written, as 18th-century Italian song and dance music. How often do we hear it “Germanized” or “Russianized,” forgetting that the music was based on Pergolesi and his contemporaries? In this 1973 recording he was fortunate to have three of the finest singers available, soprano Edda Moser, tenor Werner Hollweg and Canadian-American Barry McDaniel, who spent 90% of his career in Europe. All are in fine voice, singing with sensitivity and excellent style, although for some reason only Moser was an international superstar. This is now my favorite recording of this score, surpassing the Gerard Schwarz recording on Naxos. On a final note, the uncredited violin soloist in Apollon musagète is simply wonderful.

If you enjoy most of any of the music on this set, you absolutely cannot afford to pass it up. Gielen will have you on the edge of your seat from start to finish. Sonics and performance both get six fish!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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