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Bob Zeidler (Charlton, MA United States)

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Panorama - Elgar
Panorama - Elgar
Offered by EliteDigital UK
Price: £11.94

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Get this for Bernstein�s remarkable "Enigma Variations.", 5 July 2004
This review is from: Panorama - Elgar (Audio CD)
Without question, others will find much to admire in this DGG medium-price "twofer" containing some very important music of Sir Edward Elgar. The Pierre Fournier/Alfred Wallenstein performance of Elgar's Cello Concerto, as one example, is likely quite fine, as is Giuseppi Sinopoli's performance of the Elgar 2nd Symphony, with the Philharmonia Orchestra. (My personal preferences for these two works are the DuPré/Barbirolli recording of the Cello Concerto [a truly memorable performance, properly identified by EMI as one of its "Great Recordings of the Century] and the Bryden Thomson recording of the 2nd Symphony [on the Chandos label], but these preferences clearly fall into the "your mileage may vary" category.)
Put simply, there is one overriding reason for my reviewing and recommending this "twofer": Leonard Bernstein's performance of Elgar's "signature" piece, the Enigma Variations. This performance, as well as the two "Pomp and Circumstance" marches coupled here, and a performance of Elgar's "The Crown of India" March, all performed by Bernstein/BBC Symphony, had originally been released by DGG on a single CD, and then later withdrawn. So it is good news indeed that the major work of that earlier release has been included on this "twofer."
Throughout his career, but perhaps most notably in his post-New York Philharmonic years, Bernstein was capable of what can only be described as prodigious feats in the matter of orchestral control of tempi in certain works. The second series of Mahler symphonies which he recorded with the New York, Amsterdam Concertgebouw and Vienna Philharmonic orchestras on DGG ("Bernstein II," if you will, to distinguish this series from his earlier Columbia Masterworks series when he was the Music Director of the New York Philharmonic), and an absolutely revelatory recorded performance of Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde," on Philips, are two such examples (among many).
Add to this his BBC Philharmonic recording of the Enigma Variations included here. The specific variation which is at the same time the most revelatory and the most controversial in Bernstein's hands is also the most famous of them: the "Nimrod" variation. Where other performances of this variation are typically timed at something on the order of four minutes, Bernstein's performance comes in at 6'08". Someone familiar with this work, and the timings of the various variations, but unfamiliar with Bernstein's performance, would surely say, upon reading this 6'08" timing, that something is terribly awry; that Bernstein has literally and figuratively "destroyed" this variation by stretching it out of shape, beyond the breaking point.
Ah, but such is the magic that Bernstein weaves with this variation that it all works, and works so well, that one comes away saying, "Of course! Of course!" He succeeds totally in suspending time for the duration of the variation, under tempo circumstances for which the movement would simply fall apart - and fail utterly - under lesser hands. "Magic" is the best - and the only - word that comes to mind in my efforts to describe the effect that Bernstein achieves.
To me, this is more than sufficient reason to recommend this recording, and very highly at that. But I recognize that this performance, idiosyncratic as it is, might not be to all tastes. So I also recommend the classic Pierre Monteux/London Symphony Orchestra version, initially released four decades ago on an RCA Victrola LP in the U.S. but now available in a Decca mid-price "twofer" coupled with a "beefy" performance of Gustav Holst's "The Planets" performed by Herbert von Karajan and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.
Get both the Bernstein and the Monteux for the Elgar. They are both classics, but of course for entirely different approaches: Monteux as the "classicist" and Bernstein as the "conjurer of what might be possible."


Symphony No. 4 (Cassuto, Nso of Ireland)
Symphony No. 4 (Cassuto, Nso of Ireland)
Offered by Fulfillment Express
Price: £11.68

16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A fascinating find for me. And hopefully for you as well., 5 July 2004
A fellow classical music reviewer, in his review of Joly Braga Santos's Symphony No. 2, was so convincing in his enthusiasm for this largely-unknown 20th-century Portuguese composer that I obtained not only that CD but this one as well. Both CDs are certifiable "winners." There is little that I can add to his comments on the 2nd Symphony and its discmate (the "Crossroads" Ballet); I agree with all that he has written. But there is plenty worthy of comment for this 4th Symphony, coupled on this CD with his "Symphonic Variations."
Braga Santos (1924-1988) spent the early part of his musical career studying under a Portuguese composer of the previous generation, Luis de Freitas Branco, who would appear to have influenced all of Braga Santos's compositions through and including the 4th Symphony, all of which were written while he was still in his 20s. (The excellent booklet notes, by Álvaro Cassuto, the conductor for this Marco Polo series and clearly the principal champion of the music of Braga Santos, go on to state that Braga Santos subsequently studied with Herman Scherchen and Virgilio Motari, and that his later works reflected a more avant-garde compositional style, something that I have yet to look forward to.) Despite his Iberian roots, there is little in his music that brings to mind a characteristically Iberian style (say, that of Manuel de Falla). Instead, there is a more "international" flavor to these works, including some fairly obvious similarities with a number of better-known composers: Bax, Bruckner, Hanson, Nielsen, Ravel, Respighi, Rimsky-Korsakov, Sibelius and Vaughan Williams come to mind at various points throughout the 4th Symphony, and the Symphonic Variations have their Ravelian and Respighian touches as well.
The symphony (Braga Santos's longest, at some 53 minutes), is in four rather evenly divided movements, save for the last movement, which concludes with a stirring epilogue in the form of a chorale that largely accounts for its greater length. Each of the movements is full of good tunes, incorporated with real craftsmanship and a high regard for orchestral color. One can hear the ravishing lushness of Ravel, the motivic cells of Sibelius (even successfully combined with the Ravel touches in several places), brilliant splashes of orchestra color that readily remind one of Respighi, frequently modal writing reminiscent of Vaughan Williams, side drum tattoos that bring Nielsen to mind, and so forth. The epilogue-in-the-form-of-a-chorale that concludes the work does so on a very high note; with its use of timpani ostinato and a chorale theme that is of a definitely "Romantic yearning" bent, it reminds me in most respects of the final-movement coda to Hanson's "Romantic" Symphony, even to its brilliant modulations in the closing bars.
What is exceedingly difficult to put into words is the fact that all of this works, and works brilliantly, without seeming obvious or "pastiche-like." Each movement is a fully-developed entity having its own themes (and ear-catching tunes), with its own immediate appeal, yet the four movements fit together with perfect logic. Tis a puzzlement that this work has labored pretty much in obscurity for a half-century, for it is a "can't fail" audience-pleaser that need make no apologies.
The "Symphonic Variations" (which is the opening track on the disc) is, according to the booklet notes, based on a popular song from the Alentejo region of southern Portugal. It is a catchy tune, even a pretty one, where the "theme and variation" idea is utilized as a formal device for displaying the virtuoso and coloristic capabilities of the orchestra; a "Concerto for Orchestra" without actually being one, so to say. The work is "of a piece" with the 4th Symphony in terms of its obvious craft and its immediate - and seemingly lasting - appeal.
This last point deserves a small bit of additional commentary. Seldom, when listening to something totally new to me, do I latch on to it as I seem to have with these two Braga Santos works. My music library is literally littered with roadkill, stuff I gave a try to that in the end just didn't make an impression on me. Not so for these works; each time I listen to them (and it's been a few times already, just for purpose of putting these thoughts together), I find something new to appreciate in what Braga Santos has crafted.
Marco Polo has done us an outstanding service by committing to disc a major portion of Braga Santos's symphonic output (including all of his symphonies), under the direction of Cassuto. The National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland is a fine group that does justice to both these works, and the sound is excellent.
This is truly a composer who deserves to be "rescued from obscurity," and Cassuto and Marco Polo have done themselves proud in their efforts. I hope to have the opportunity to hear a Braga Santos work performed "live" some day, now that all this "heavy lifting" by Cassuto and Marco Polo has brought his works before the listening public.


Voices 1900-2000: a Choral Journey Through the Twentieth Century
Voices 1900-2000: a Choral Journey Through the Twentieth Century
Price: £14.53

5.0 out of 5 stars "Come with me, under my coat", 5 July 2004
"And we will drink our fill..."
These are the first two strophes of Samuel Barber's "The Coolin," one of the three songs in his choral song cycle "Reincarnations." A friend recommended that I listen to this song, someone who had fond memories of singing it but who had yet to hear a satisfactory recording of the work. Given the enthusiasm, even exuberence, that she displayed regarding the singing, I thought it important enough - and only fair - that I seek out the best possible performance of the work. So I ended up acquiring three CD's, all containing "The Coolin" (and two containing the full set of "Reincarnations" songs). Having listened now to all three, it is easy for me to state that this CD contains the hands-down winner. And to further add that the other two Barber songs in the cycle really don't measure up to this one, so the absence of them on this release is no great loss to me.
Set to a love poem by the early-20th century Irish poet James Stephens, "coolin" is a lock of hair (or "curleen") that grows on a young girl's neck, an expression seemingly equivalent to "sweetheart." Stephens goes on to say, "I sought to represent that state which is almost entirely a condition of dream wherein the passion of love has almost overreached itself and is sinking to a motionless languor." Barber's beautiful setting of the poem reflects that aim totally, and the singing of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra captures the passionate languor perfectly.
The album - billed as "a choral journey through the twentieth century" and meant to spotlight the excellence of the chorus - is interesting both in terms of what it includes and what it overlooks, in terms of choral classics. The opening track contains a truly fine performance of John Tavener's "Song for Athene" (made famous as the recessional at Princess Diana's funeral although written some years earlier upon the death of a friend of Tavener). If you want a fine performance of this particular Tavener work but are not sure whether you want an album full of his works, look no further.
There are three songs in French (by Debussy, Badings - actually a Dutchman - and Poulenc). For me, the Badings song ("La nuit en Mer," from his "Three Breton Songs" of 1948) is one of the true "sleepers" in this album, a work I'd hardly expect to run across under normal circumstances and a beautful one at that.
Needless to say, there is a lot of "Americana" here as well, including an arrangement of Aaron Copland's harmonization of the Shaker hymn "Simple Gifts" for chorus and piano, an Alice Parker setting of "Hark, I Hear the Harps Eternal" and a simply drop-dead-gorgeous setting of "Shenandoah" by J. Erb (no first name provided in the notes). Two fine inclusions are a wonderful setting of Jerome Kern's "All the Things You Are" (breathtaking in its harmonic daring) and the evergreen "Make Our Garden Grow" from Bernstein's "Candide" (the album "closer").
In addition to the Tavener work, the century's end is well-represented by Allen Jay Kernis ("How the Soul Speaks to God"), Morten Lauridsen ("O Love, Be Fed With Apples While You May" from his "Mid-Winter Songs") and Conrad Susa ("Winds of May" from his "Six Joyce Songs").
This is an eclectic collection, as individual for what it does NOT include as for what it does. For example, there is not a single song by Charles Ives (who wrote well over 150 of them, many of them beautiful), or by William Schuman (another prolific songwriter). England is represented only by Tavener, and therefore there are none of the fine songs written by John Rutter and Benjamin Britten. And there is nothing to represent 20th-century Scandanavia. (For example, though Einojuhani Rautavaara is mentioned in the booklet notes and has written many fine songs, none are included here.) Nevertheless, I hardly think that choral fans will be disappointed with the selection provided (chosen, I would guess, by both the chorus itself and by its conductor, Vance George).
Vance George certainly has the proper bona fides (mentoring under both Robert Shaw and Margaret Hillis, herself a Shaw acolyte), and he has developed the San Francisco Symphony Chorus to an enviable level (as can be demonstrated by the fine support they provide for a number of orchestral/choral works conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas). Clearly, this chorus must number among the top half-dozen currently supporting major orchestras in the U.S.
The recorded sound quality is mostly excellent, although a few of the tracks don't seem to be representative of the usual Delos mastery of capturing sound in difficult acoustical environments. But, then, Davies Hall (the home of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra) is quite well-known for its tricky acoustics.
The booklet notes - by Laura Stanfield Prichard - are good for what they are. The organization of the notes follows neither the strict chronology of the works nor the actual playing order. But the notes do a reasonable job of describing the works themselves, save for any mention whatsoever of Jerome Kern or of the arranger who provided the drop-dead-gorgeous setting of "All the Things You Are."
But, despite these nitpicking minor criticisms of mine, if you are - like me - a choral junkie, you'll want this album in your collecction. For all the good reasons I've highlighted above. And most especially for Sam Barber's "The Coolin."


American Journeys [IMPORT]
American Journeys [IMPORT]
Offered by EliteDigital UK
Price: £13.98

5.0 out of 5 stars The Adams is great, and Ott is a terrific find., 5 July 2004
This is an unusual and really intriguing release. Considering that the works here were recorded seven years ago, and the CD released some five years ago, I am hard-pressed to explain why I've been unsuccessful in finding any previous mention of it, either in print or on the web.
John Adams, for those having a predisposed "take" on him, is more than "mere minimalist." Although he tends to get lumped in with Philip Glass and Steve Reich as one of "the big three of the Second-Wave American Minimalist Movement," he has moved well past this limitation in works too numerous to mention. But he is also an orchestrator of no mean ability, having orchestrated, in addition to the two works in this album, a number of songs by Charles Ives. (Five of these orchestrated Ives songs can be found on an equally remarkable album titled "John Adams: American Elegies," available elsewhere at Amazon.com; highly recommended.)
There is certainly nothing "minimalist" about Adams's orchestrations of the Liszt and Busoni pieces (the Liszt a late piano work, the Busoni a work for full, rather than chamber, orchestra). Both are of late Romantic "Gothic" style, rather reminiscent, in mood, of Rachmaninoff's "Isle of the Dead" symphonic poem, particularly the Liszt, with its musical depiction of waves lapping against the gondola. Despite the chamber orchestra settings, both pieces are satisfactorily rich-sounding, and elegiac, rather than purely gloomy, in mood. Exquisitely performed here by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Gisèle Ben-Dor, these must be a good match to Adams' own performances, available on a different CD (along with his "El Dorado"), which I have yet to hear.
Anyone wondering "What ever happened to those great, brilliant Romantic-era piano concertos?" (last seen, in mild disguise, in the piano concertos of Serge Prokofiev, and a few to follow later, such as Samuel Barber's) need look no further than the Piano Concerto No. 2 by David Ott. This work has to be one of my "finds of the year" in that I've somehow managed to totally miss Ott's works (and the fact, as noted at the top, that there seems to be little if any publicity regarding this album certainly doesn't help). Born in the same year (1947) as Adams (apparently the single common factor between the two composers), Ott - based on the two works on this CD - works in a very tonal post-modernist neo-Romantic idiom.
Written in 1994, for a commission by Frederick Moyer, the soloist in this performance, the work is a big, brilliantly splashy concerto "in the old style" suggestive of some of the great showpieces of Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev and others without being purely derivative. I've got more of this post-modern neo-Romantic music in my library than I care to admit, because so much of it is forgettable. But not this Ott work. Sure, it's a throwback in some respects. But it is written with craft, and sounds so well, and shows off the soloist so well, that I've got it figured as eventually being a repertoire piece; I just can't see how it could lose. Unlike other, lesser works in this post-modernist neo-Romantic style that languish in my library because they wore out their welcome on the very first listen, this work is eminently relistenable; a real gem, and, I'm sure, a real crowd-pleaser in the concert hall. Moyer plays this piece for all it's worth (which is quite a bit); his technique is nothing short of prodigious.
Ott's other concerto, for alto flute and strings, is equally attractive. The smaller-scale scoring means that the soloist, with a mellower instrument not having the penetrating power of the conventional soprano flute, doesn't have to "do battle" with orchestral forces that could easily swamp the instrument. But, mellower or softer or not, the alto flute has every bit of the agility that the standard instrument does, and Ott's writing brings this agility - as well as other tricks well-known to flautists - to the forefront. As in the piano concerto, the soloist - Christine Michelle Smith - is closely tied to the work, being its dedicatee.
Gisèle Ben-Dor, an excellent conductor from Argentina by way of Israel and presently the music director of the Santa Barbara Symphony Orchestra, has already begun to make a name for herself in the Latin American repertoire of the 20th century (Ginastera, Revueltas, Villa-Lobos). Here, leading the London Symphony Orchestra in these American works, she is superb, turning in thoroughly idiomatic - and brilliant - performances. And the recorded sound is nothing short of splendid.
The album title is almost too cryptic - and hardly original enough - for the treasures it contains. This is particularly the case for the two David Ott concerted works, which deserve "repertoire" status; the Adams transcriptions are, as I previously noted, available elsewhere, conducted by Adams himself.


Lilburn: The Three Symphonies
Lilburn: The Three Symphonies
Offered by Naxos Direct UK
Price: £5.99

19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Nordic Kiwi., 4 July 2004
A few enthusiastic on-the-web reviews of this CD, and one in Fanfare magazine, were all it took for me to give the music of Douglas Lilburn, a recently-deceased (2001) New Zealand composer, a try. (At Naxos prices, what is there to lose, anyway?) It turns out that I'm glad that I did, even though, after listening to the CD numerous times, I've come to recognize minor inaccuracies in at least one of those on-line reviews (elsewhere, not here at Amazon.com). Lilburn's music turned out to be well worth my time, in more ways than one.
Despite Lilburn's having studied in England with Ralph Vaughan Williams, there is not very much in these three symphonies to suggest an obvious connection, except through very careful listening (and, clearly, a knowledge of Vaughan Williams's works). Even then, the connection is subtle and fleeting for the most part, and only truly evident in the two earlier symphonies. Elsewhere in these works, parallels to other 20th-century composers can be made, most obviously - and particularly in the two earlier works - to Jean Sibelius, Sir William Walton, Howard Hanson and Carl Nielsen (hence the "Nordic Kiwi" reference in the brief description at the top).
Lilburn's three-movement First Symphony (1949) comes across as - despite his New Zealand origins - unabashedly Nordic in its "sound." The first movement is very Sibelius-like, with its building up of the work from small motivic cells, using harmonic and instrumental-color touches (woodwind pairs in thirds, for example) that remind one of the great Finn. The more brilliant parts of the movement also suggest Walton, particularly his Symphony No. 1. Several minutes into this first movement, there is a clarinet figure which reminds one of Nielsen, but then, immediately after, the thought of Sibelius returns stronger than ever. There is even a hint of very late Sibelius, say, his "Tapiola," in the movement's occasional moments of bleakness.The second movement opens in a Vaughan Williams-like pastoral mood to start, following which the alternation among Hanson, Sibelius and Nielsen seems to again dominate. The third movement again brings Vaughan Williams or Walton, as well as Sibelius, to mind. There is a brass theme reminiscent of Walton's "Crown Imperial," followed by more work reminiscent of RVW, along the lines of his "Folk Song Suite" or, perhaps, portions of his London Symphony or the more pastoral Third and Fifth Symphonies. This final movement closes in a manner that is very much Hanson-like in its neoromantic richness; it is almost a ringer for the closing moments of Hanson's own Romantic (2nd) Symphony.
Much the same can be said for the four-movement Second Symphony (1951), in terms of allusions to these aforementioned composers. But the third-movement Lento invests this later work in depth of emotional intensity (reminiscent of the Largo movement of Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony) not experienced in the earlier work. Overall, it is the more engaging (and more fully-developed) work of the two.
The Third Symphony (1961) represents a dramatic change in compositional aesthetic from the two earlier works from the previous decade. It is definitely sterner stuff: much more chromatic and stretching the limits of tonality almost to the edge of atonality, and with little evidence of the Nordic sound of the two earlier works. In fact, the allusions are more to William Schuman or, perhaps, Paul Hindemith, with some suggestion of Serge Prokofiev in the "Vivace" section and Béla Bartók, as in his Concerto for Orchestra, in the "Andante" section. Despite its 14-minute terseness (in one movement that Lilburn divides into five connected sections), it is a richer and more rewarding (if more challenging) work than the earlier two symphonies.
Admittedly, my comments appear to describe these Lilburn symphonies as "rich in borrowed eclecticism." But, if you enjoy the works of any of the composers who seem to be alluded to in these works, you're likely to enjoy this album. The first two works will not challenge you greatly, perhaps, and Lilburn's voice is hardly what I'd characterize as "truly original," but they are tuneful and totally tonal in a way that today's neoromantic composers seem unable to achieve. Worth a listen on those grounds alone.
The recording is fine; perhaps a slight bit on the congested side when listened to on speakers but seemingly clearer when heard on wide-range headphones. The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra acquits itself very well in these works (as one expects it should).
The booklet notes are largely a waste, consisting of only the barest biographical materials and little of musicological merit, especially considering that for many this will be their first experience with Lilburn's music.. Anyone able to make the "Nordic" connections that I (and other reviewers) have made, with little trouble at all, will be frustrated by the fact that the notes say little about Lilburn's music and its possible influences and inspirations beyond the fact that he studied with Vaughan Williams.
A recent news article on Klaus Heymann, the founder/owner of Naxos, states that he lives in New Zealand and no longer oversees the Naxos operation with the same day-to-day attention to detail that he earlier did, in establishing the label's reputation.
And it shows. To me, it seems as if he had little if any direct role in championing this release; it doesn't have his characteristic "fingerprints" for notational detail and scholarship. (By contrast, the Naxos booklet notes for the recent "critical edition" recordings of the Charles Ives 2nd and 3rd Symphonies, by Kenneth Schermerhorn and James Sinclair respectively, are models of musicological clarity and comprehensiveness.) As a result, I feel as if I can give this release only four stars, despite the novelty of the music, as well as its performance, being reasonably meritorious.


All the Stops: The Glorious Pipe Organ and Its American Masters
All the Stops: The Glorious Pipe Organ and Its American Masters
by Craig R. Whitney
Edition: Hardcover

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Two remarkable sagas in one book. And then some., 4 July 2004
Craig R. Whitney, a superb writer (his "day job" with the N.Y. Times has included assignments as correspondent, foreign editor and now assistant managing editor) and an enthusiastic pipe organ expert (and, one would expect, performer as well) has written what I believe to be the authoritative book on the history of organs and organists in America. And he's written it so well that it can't fail to interest both pipe organ aficianados and the general public as well.
There are two stories interwoven together here, set against the cultural milieu that gave rise to the popularity of pipe organs in America in the first third of the 20th century, then a slow decline in interest with the advent of alternative forms of entertainment ("talkies," the phonograph, and radio and television), and, quite recently, a renewed interest in the design and installation of new instruments and the preservation and restoration of older ones.
The first story is that of the instrument itself, and of the people "who made it happen": the organ designers/builders who were central to the development of the pipe organ in America. Whitney singles out the three most influential 20th century practitioners - Edward M. Skinner, G. Donald Harrison and Charles B. Fisk - without ignoring the influences of either their domestic predecessors (George H. Ryder, E. & G.G. Hook) or their international competitors (Cavaillé-Coll, Casavant Frères, Flentrop, Ruffati). The efforts by these three, affecting the sounds of pipe organs in all sorts of installations (places of worship [obviously], but also concert halls, museums, theaters, and even retail stores and private residences), can be summarized as the search for "eclectic" organs, i.e., organs of sufficient versatility that they are "at home" playing music written for the instrument from virtually any historical period (and certainly from the baroque period of Bach, through the French romantic period, and on to the current repertoire).
The organ part of the story leaves out nothing of importance, including changes in musical taste over time, and how that taste was affected by the instrument's practitioners and composers, as well as bankruptcies and mergers and acquisitions (the most famous of which was the joining of the E. M. Skinner Company with the Aeolian Company to form Aeolian-Skinner, perhaps the largest 20th century force in the industry). Whitney leaves us at a point in history - now - where eclectic organs utilizing both baroque-era tracker mechanisms and modern-day electropneumatic actions are largely the "norm" and where new instruments incorporating such hybrid features are finding their way back into the concert hall.
The second story is that of the two instrumentalists who, over a period exceeding three decades, defined organ performance for most of us and who most directly affected organ design and performance style: E. Power Biggs and Virgil Fox.
It is hard to imagine two people more different than Biggs and Fox, and their differences were only exaggerated wtih the passage of time, with Biggs becoming more and more the "purist" (with his interest in historical instruments and performance practices) and Fox becoming more and more the "showman" (to the point where he became a self-promotional caricature of himself).
Was one better than the other? Was one "right" and the other "wrong"? Whitney writes about Biggs and Fox in a non-judgemental way, using overlapping chapters to tell the story of each, leaving us to decide for ourselves how to assess their contributions. Personally, I think we'd be the poorer if the efforts of either man were lost. Without Biggs, we might not have heard Charles Ives's "Variations on America," sent at his request for "something by Ives" by Mrs. Ives in 1948, with a note from her that Ives hadn't composed anything for the organ in over 40 years. And without Fox, we'd have never heard his organ transcription of Bach's "Komm Susser Tod" ("Come, Sweet Death"), performed on the John Wanamaker organ in Philadelphia. Although Fox evenually went "over the top" in his "Fillmore East electric organ" phase, his very last recording, made not long before he died, on the then-new Ruffati organ at the Garden Grove Community Church, remains as testimony to his staggering technique.
Whitney writes with infectious enthusiasm for his subject. One hardly needs to be an unrepentent pipe organ nut, as I happen to be, in order to enjoy this book. I think that anyone with an interest in music - and especially music in America - will find the book to be a delight.
I'd be remiss if I failed to mention a small point that reached me directly (perhaps more directly than they would most readers). This is that Whitney, because of his origins, is very familiar with pipe organs in my geographical area, particularly in Worcester, MA, where there are two fine instruments. One of them - an 1864 E. & G.G. Hook organ in Mechanics Hall - is of historic importance because it was the first "grand civic" organ in the country. I've admired its (now-restored) appearance for many years (as a concert-goer), but have yet to hear the instrument. Perhaps one of these days someone will perform a recital on it.


The Artist's Wife
The Artist's Wife
by Max Phillips
Edition: Hardcover

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Truth can be stranger than fiction. Sometimes., 4 July 2004
This review is from: The Artist's Wife (Hardcover)
I approached this book with some trepidation, not quite "fear and loathing" perhaps, but close enough. My reason? Simple enough. My fondness for Gustav Mahler's music - irrespective of what warts the man may or may not have had - made me think twice before reading a fictionalized version of "the wild brat's story" and how it might have distorted my own version of reality concerning my favorite composer. I shouldn't have worried.
Some thirty-odd years ago, I had the opportunity to read an English translation of Alma Mahler Werfel's "Ein Leben mit Gustav Mahler" ("My Life with Gustav Mahler"). The book was not mine, and I regret not having my own copy to this day, if for no other reason than that Alma edited these reminiscences with a rather heavy hand, lest the reader get the idea that she was less than devoted to Mahler. Of course, even then, her legend preceded her. Those of a certain age (and I am one of them) well remember Tom Lehrer's send-up of her, sung to the melody of "Alma Mater." A tune as trenchant commentary, deservedly so.
Well, if there's nothing new under the sun from Tom Lehrer (and others) from then till now, why in the world should one read this "autobiographical" novel? For the simple reason that Max Phillips has fashioned an excellent tale about a fascinating woman whose greatest adventures occurred during a time when her fin-de-siècle Vienna and Hapsburg world was simultaneously both filled with intriguing characters and at the brink of chaos and collapse.
Despite her own heavy hand at personal "damage control," there is plenty of historical corroborating information (including those parts of her diaries and memoirs that she did indeed approve for publication) to state that Alma was clearly all of these: Self-absorbed, wilful, modestly talented, unafraid of her own sexuality, a flame to the moths of creative genius of the times, a sometime muse to these geniuses, and self-appointed - or perhaps self-anointed - champion and guardian of the arts of her times, with her "Sundays" (salons at which all the rich and famous of the arts of the period grovelled for her invitations and attention). She was also beautiful by the day's standards, and suffered from both deafness and alcoholism. Nevertheless, she outlived all but one of her husbands and lovers, living to the ripe old age of 84, by that time a barely-subdued doyenne. (Of her paramours, only Oskar Kokoschka outlived her, finally expiring at the very ripe old age of 94 in 1980.)
In an endnote, Phillips begins by stating "To put it mildly, this is not a work of scholarship." While perhaps true - because Phillips does take minor liberties with the timings and juxtaposition of events and (probably) major liberties with words placed in the mouths of his panoply of characters - he is being entirely too modest (perhaps with tongue implanted firmly in cheek) regarding these liberties. For, at the end of it all, one does come away with a clear sense of "what Alma was all about," and of an epoch and its end. The latter is detailed better in "Wittgenstein's Vienna" by Allan Janik and Stephen Toulmin, a true work of scholarship available elsewhere at Amazon.com. But, where Janik and Toulmin are factual - almost, but not quite, to the point of pedanticism - Phillips is downright trenchant in his observations on the epoch and in the words he puts in his characters' mouths.
At the end, the tale turned out to be both a hoot and a valuable backward glance at an artistic period and place which we in America regrettably understand not well at all. As I said at the outset, "I shouldn't have worried."


The Mahler Companion
The Mahler Companion
by Donald Mitchell
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £94.13

23 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A near-perfect Mahler resource., 3 July 2004
This review is from: The Mahler Companion (Hardcover)
This collection of essays, by a wide range of contributors, adds considerably to our collective knowledge of Gustav Mahler, his life and times and the cultural milieu in which he worked as composer and conductor, and of course his music.
The editors, as they note in the Introduction, provided very loose guidelines to the contributing essayists: Beyond refereeing the broad topics for inclusion, the editors largely gave carte blanche to the contributors regarding style and content. This "looseness of control" has resulted in a volume of both very considerable strengths (some of which I highlight here) and a few perplexing weaknesses and oversights which I allude to at the end of my comments.
The "logical bookends" of this volume are an opening essay by Leon Botstein, titled "Gustav Mahler's Vienna," and a closing essay by Wilfrid Mellers, titled "Mahler and the Great Tradition: Then and Now." The former sets the cultural, socio-political and philosophical stage of fin-de-siècle Vienna onto which Mahler entered, and the latter nicely summarizes how Mahler might fit into a continuum of musical composition and practice that preceded and succeeded him. (This new paperback edition also includes. at the end, two new essays, not present in the hardback edition, covering recollections of his daughter, Anna, and recently discovered Mahler "juvenilia" in the form early chamber music and songs.) In between these bookends, all of Mahler's music, and much about his life and times, and how he and his music were accepted (or not accepted) inside and outside Vienna, are covered.
The essays regarding Mahler's music are largely - and splendidly - informative, and provide alternative insights into the music not necessarily covered by the well-known analyses of Theodor Adorno, Constantin Floros and Henry-Louis de La Grange. (Interestingly, many of the music-analysis contributors reference Adorno's "Mahler: A Musical Physiognomy." Perhaps Adorno's time has come as well, some 40 years after his writing this difficult-but-epiphanic work.) But at least three of them are (to me, anyway) frustratingly idiosyncratic. Peter Franklin's essay on the Third Symphony ("A Stranger's Story: Programmes, Politics, and Mahler's Third Symphony") is heavy on largely-irrelevant minutiae and very light on certain matters of true import, such as the significance of the final Adagio of the work. David Matthews' "The Sixth Symphony," by his choice, largely limits his comments to the two well-known areas of conjecture/dispute: the ordering of the two inner (Scherzo, Andante) movements and the matter of whether the final movement should have two hammer blows or three. (I am personally in agreement with both of his choices, but that is largely beside the point.) And Colin Matthews' "The Tenth Symphony" is largely a technical analysis of the available raw materials of the work left by Mahler for realization by others but very little about what interests most Mahlerites regarding this final work: A detailed comparison of the various "performing versions" or "realizations" that exist.
Among the many personal "resonances" for me are the following: A finely-crafted analysis of Mahler's "Opus 1," his "Das klagende Lied" (but absent the fact that a splendid recording of the 1997-discovered Ur-text score has been made by Kent Nagano); (finally) a musicological connection between Mahler and Hector Berlioz, by way of how the widely-separated octaves (of trombone pedal tones and high flutes) in the "Hostias" of the Berlioz Requiem might have influenced Mahler when he was composing the first "Nachtmusik" movement of his Seventh Symphony; and a fascinating footnote to the analysis of the final Adagio of the Ninth Symphony, where some apparently reliable documentation is provided for Mahler's awareness of the famous hymn, "Abide with Me," the tune that always comes to mind every time I listen to this gorgeous hymn-like passage.
Elsewhere (and scattered throughout various essays) are frequent allusions to certain parallels between Mahler and Charles Ives. (They both wrote "music about music," incorporated "vernacular" music in their works, were almost-simultaneous "polytonalists" and of course contemporaries. The matter of whether Mahler had been aware of the music of Ives is put more in the affirmative than I've seen heretofore; hopefully this is the result of recent research about which there is more to follow.) Similarly, there are frequent parallels drawn between Mahler and Dmitri Shostakovich; the case for Shostakovich being the logical (and most significant by far) successor to Mahler is well-drawn without overlooking the obvious differences between them.
There is an intriguing chapter on some not-so-obvious parallels between Mahler and Debussy (although the overt pentatonicism of "late" Mahler is made elsewhere, most obviously in the essay on "Das Lied von der Erde"). And, for me, one of the best contributions is by Edward R. Reilly, in his essay on "Mahler in America."
The volume is exceedingly well-annotated, with liberal footnotes (many, such as the "Abide with Me" one, of considerable length), and, at the back, a full bibliography of source materials, a detailed index of works, and a general index as well. Clearly, a lot of work (both scholarship and "routine editorial") has gone into the preparation of this valuable resource.
The book is not perfect in all respects, at least from my own personal point of view. Biographical details are not its strength, but there are the volumes by La Grange and Blaukopf & Blaukopf to compensate. (Nonetheless, I would have liked to have seen a contribution by Herta Blaukopf, who is as knowledgeable about Mahler's Vienna Conservatory period as any.) But, as I noted at the outset, its very considerable strengths greatly outweigh its relatively minor weaknesses. If you consider yourself a Mahlerite, this book belongs in your library, alongside your copies of Adorno, Blaukopf, Floros and La Grange.


Ives - Symphony No 1; Emerson Concerto
Ives - Symphony No 1; Emerson Concerto
Price: £7.50

12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Ives: Both "digestible" and challenging., 2 Jun. 2004
Superficially, this new Naxos release of Ives's 1st Symphony and the premiere recording of his Emerson Concerto resembles an earlier Naxos release of his 2nd Symphony and Robert Browning Overture (a review of which I gave the sobriquet "Charlie done right"). The resemblance is in the pairing of an "accessible" Ives work with one more "knotty." In each case, the symphony receives a performance using a new critical edition (by Jonathan Elkus in that earlier release and by James Sinclair in this one). And each critical edition affords a fresh view of such "accessible" Ives. But the similarities shouldn't be overdrawn; while the Robert Browning Overture is knotty under the best of circumstances, the Emerson Concerto turns out to be more accessible than I expected; a pleasant revelation.
The 1st Symphony was a "student" work, Ives's Yale thesis work written for his teacher, Horatio Parker, but with the clear influence of his "experimentalist" father, George Ives. (An idea of Ives's "experimentation" is found as early as in the first movement, nominally in D minor, where a passage modulates through eight different key signatures. A near-apocryphal anecdote related by Ives in his later years has Parker at least mildly annoyed by Ives's insistence on these modulations, but finally "throwing up his hands" in defeat and stating "But you must promise to end in D minor.")
If Ives learned from his father, he also clearly learned from Parker. The work is very much in a late 19th-century European mold, with strong resemblances to both Dvorak's New World Symphony (particularly in the second-movement Adagio molto, an obvious "borrowing" from the famous Largo of the Dvorak) and Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6 in the final movement. If not of the caliber (and endurance of appeal) of other such "first efforts" in the genre as those by Berlioz, Mahler and Shostakovich (at age 19!), it is nonetheless eminently appealing and, even, entertaining. Moreover, it lacks nothing by way of craft except perhaps for an overabundance of ideas (seemingly so rich that a "thriftier" composer might have stretched another symphony out of them). He demonstrates, in this youthful work, that he is as well a very skilled orchestrator, despite his youth and inexperience.
Over the years, I've collected what I think are (or were) all the available recordings of this work: Morton Gould with the Chicago Symphony (the world premiere recording), Eugene Ormandy with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and, most recently, Michael Tilson Thomas with (again) the Chicago Symphony. This new Sinclair performance puts them all out to pasture. (Only the Gould is remembered with fondness, because it was a "discovery" for me.)
Sinclair's critical edition restores a first-movement repeat and adds side-drum percussion (more about THAT later) in the Finale, and as well, I expect, corrects numerous small errors. His reading of the work is superb, the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland turn in a splendid performance, and the sonics are among Naxos's best (which means "very good indeed").
Particularly felicitous is Sinclair's interpretation of the Adagio molto second movement, where he lovingly lingers over its beauties, in which Ives serves notice that he is a true melodist, a "note spinner," when he chooses to be. The coda of the Finale is certainly enhanced by the inclusion of side drums having a very "American" flavor, perhaps the single best hint that this is the work of an American composer despite its European flavor otherwise (as if "you can take the boy out of Danbury but you can't take Danbury out of the boy"). Such percussion scoring would become commonplace a generation or so later; it became a frequent touchstone in the works of William Schuman, as one example.
The other work, the Emerson Concerto in its recording premiere, hardly arrives "unannounced," as Alan Feinberg, the soloist here, has performed the work (to splendid reviews) in concerts since its concert premiere in 1998. But for most of us this is a "first hearing."
The work is"realized" by David G. Porter, an Ives scholar who must number among the fearless of this small community, from incomplete sketches of an "Emerson Overture" for piano and orchestra (one of four such proposed overtures on literary figures, of which only the Robert Browning Overture saw completion). According to Sinclair's authoritative "Descriptive Catalog of the Music of Charles Ives," the terms "overture" and "concerto" can be used interchangeably.
While Ives never completed the work, he did succeed in subsuming many of its themes in the Concord Sonata and the Four Emerson Transcriptions for Piano that are closely related, thematically, to the Concord. By far the most famous of these themes is the four-note "Fate" motive that begins Beethoven's 5th Symphony, a theme for which Ives ascribed greater "universality" than did Beethoven himself.
Ivesians coming upon this work for the first time will find it to be a fascinating, and at times compelling, mix of "the old" and "the new and strange." For the most part, connections to the Concord and the Emerson Transcriptions will be recognized, but of course transmogrified. The "Fate" motive seems to be more dominant here than in the keyboard equivalents; it is clearly the unifying theme for all four movements. Feinberg is absolutely heroic in his performance (as he needs to be, needless to say).
Orchestrating the work (and here Porter has done a superb job) clarifies far more than it obscures, vis-à-vis the keyboard works. As would be expected, shattering dissonances live side-by-side with passages of transcendent beauty. I was even able to pick out a passage or two where quarter-tones seem to have been employed by Porter; they are for the most part in the quieter passages, and they simply glow with beauty.
As much as I've enjoyed the work in its first few hearings, I think it will grow on me even more over time. And the newly-revised 1st Symphony is a winner on all accounts.
Needless to say, highy recommended.


Berlioz: Messe solennelle
Berlioz: Messe solennelle
Offered by worldcollectabilia
Price: £7.99

8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Rereleased: A unique glimpse into the Berlioz of the future., 2 Jun. 2004
Two hundred years ago last year, Louis-Hector Berlioz was born. This, then, is a time for me to comment on a few of my favorite performances of his works, some of them "favorites by acclamation" and others simply those in which I find special merit, enough so that they are frequently in my CD players.
Never mind that Hector Berlioz destroyed this student work. It is our good fortune that a copy of the manuscript survived these efforts, and moreover ended up in the hands of John Eliot Gardiner, who directs his Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique and the Montiverdi Choir plus soloists in this premiere recording.
Seemingly because of its central importance in better understanding the Berlioz canon of works – as well as its splendid recorded sound that captures the excitement of the performance – this premiere recording of the Messe Solennelle has now been deemed worthy to be rereleased as a member of the distinguished "Philips 50" series of historically important recordings by the Philips label.
The story of the discovery of the manuscript, believed – or at least hoped – by Berlioz to have been destroyed, is very well set out in the comprehensive booklet notes, as are Gardiner's comments on the work and "getting it to work."
This is truly "Hector in the raw," the work of a 20-year-old Paris Conservatory student barely trained in the essentials (a burden he would carry around, on and off, throughout his life, thanks to his critics, not to mention his own proclivities toward writing music having few if any harmonic or rhythmic antecedents and which others couldn't fathom). The work clearly has its weaknesses: structural, harmonic, melodic, rhythmic and melodic immaturities simply flood the work, and it is little wonder that, after only two performances, Berlioz designated the work for the scrapheap.
But either he kept good notebooks or he had total recall. So much of this work showed up later (suitably transmogrified, of course, but far from totally disguised) in several of his mature masterpieces: the Symphonie fantastique, the Requiem, the Te Deum, and even his mid-period opera Benvenuto Cellini. Anyone familiar with these works will have little trouble identifying precursor sources throughout the Messe Solennelle. And even the "bad bits" that never did get recycled into later works have their own share of visceral excitement and primitive charm, despite all the weaknesses noted.
The performance, by Gardiner and his troupe, could hardly be more authentic short of partaking of time travel and actually being at the true premiere. The Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique is a true period-instrument ensemble (and sounds it), not only for its insistence on the reproduction of "standard" instruments of the time (low-tension stringed instruments, valveless trumpets and horns, etc.) but also for its incorporation of instruments (which Berlioz in the main plucked out of the brass bands of the time) that have now been obsolete for nearly as long as the work has been around: bass brass instruments that include the ophicleide, the buccin and the serpent. And what a joyful noyse this ensemble makes!
The vocal soloists are uniformly fine. Gilles Cachemaille, the bass, is an old hand at singing Berlioz, and Donna Brown (soprano) and Jean-Luc Viala, while not known to me before this recording also acquit themselves very well.
Recorded now a decade ago, in Westminster Cathedral (to best simulate its initial premiere venue, Saint-Roch in Paris), the sound is certainly among the best for such a type of venue: a great sense of acoustical space, but not buried in excessive reverberation. Very nicely done!
Not long after this recording came out, Bernard Holland, writing in the New York Times, said, "Mr. Gardiner seems to have the early franchise on the 'Messe Solennelle'." As far as I know, this is still the case a decade later. And perhaps that is as it should be; the last thing we need is to have another conductor come along, take a close look at the score, and try to "improve" it. Best that we hear this "Hector in the raw" as it was meant to be heard, and not all "prettified up."


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