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Raff: Piano Trios 2 & 3
Raff: Piano Trios 2 & 3
Price: £8.60

4.0 out of 5 stars Trio Opus 8's second foray into Raff's music for piano trio is as successful and rewarding as their first, 28 Jan. 2013
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This review is from: Raff: Piano Trios 2 & 3 (Audio CD)
This disc is one of two that Trio Opus 8 and CPO devoted to the complete piano trios of Joachim Raff and it shares many of the same virtues as its companion volume*: good sound quality, sympathetic performances and rewarding music in the German Romantic tradition.

The second trio in G major is an absolute joy from beginning to end, overflowing with melody and emotional warmth. The conventionally laid out sonata form opening movement is designated in the score as 'Rasch, froh bewegt' (translated in the excellent booklet essay as 'Lively, with merry animation'), suggesting the generally upbeat nature of what is to come throughout this G major piece (although the first movement also contains music of considerable ardour too). A short but vigorous and memorable scherzo bursts onto the scene before we reach the emotional heart of this work - a lengthy set of variations on a broad, hymn-like melody. Something of the passion of the first movement recurs here at times (with some ardent passages for the cello) but there is a real sense of nobility to Raff's writing too, grandeur even at times though the composer's skill at handling his forces ensures that one never feels this is music conceived on a larger scale and squeezed into a chamber setting. The finale is in rondo form, its high-energy primary material setting the tone for a movement that is something of a tour-de-force - it is to Trio Opus 8's credit that they dispatch this virtuoso-sounding music with considerable aplomb, never sounding hard-pressed and never losing the movement's sense of wit as they race towards the finish line.

The A minor trio that follows charts a less equable emotional journey, that contrast marked out from the start with a questing "introduction" (designated 'Quasi a capriccio') leading into an urgent first subject that fully lives up to the movement's 'Allegro agitato' designation; the yearning secondary material offers some consolation but the prevailing mood of the development section is dramatic and often quite dark-hued - as, indeed, is the impressive coda. The boisterous scherzo of its companion piece on this disc is replaced here by a rather subtler, fleeter (and even shorter) movement; a warm and lilting trio provides a well-judged contrast. Another exceptionally fine set of variations stands in place of a conventional slow movement - what a knack Raff seemingly had for this sort of thing! It really is a beautiful movement and one that is over far too soon, though at ten minutes one can hardly objectively claim that the composer has given us short measure. After a brief slow introduction the finale introduces a Hungarian element, so popular in the second half of the nineteenth century; proceedings are (for me at least) marred by the introduction of an incongruous-sounding fugato in the middle of the movement but - this self-conscious display of academic propriety out of the way - the passion and vitality that opened the finale returns to the fore.

The more I listen to Raff's chamber works, the more I come to think that this area of his catalogue might contain the best of his music (or his instrumental music, at least, his vocal and operatic output being largely unexplored territory as far as record labels are concerned): I don't know whether it is that he had a natural inclination for the such genres or whether the smaller scale of the medium fortuitously reined in the tendency to grandstand (whether in terms of technical display or theatrical effect) that mars too many of his symphonic movements for my tastes - either way, the piano trios (as well as the piano quartets and music for piano quintet) consistently display a happy balance of form and content that repeatedly draw me back. Although I have a marginal personal preference for the trios on this second volume of CPO's valuable survey, in truth they all contain music of pretty much equally fine quality and this disc can be as safely and warmly recommended to lovers of Romantic chamber music as its companion issue.

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* Joachim Raff: Piano Trios 1 & 4


Walter Braunfels: Phantastische Erscheinungen, Op. 25; Serenade, Op. 20
Walter Braunfels: Phantastische Erscheinungen, Op. 25; Serenade, Op. 20
Price: £16.32

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A must-hear disc for anyone interested in the composer or Late Romantic music generally, 22 Jan. 2013
I was quite surprised to discover this superb disc from 2005 had not yet been reviewed here as it really delivers in terms of performance, sound and - perhaps most importantly - musical quality.

If there were any justice in the world, surely the marvellously inventive and beautifully scored 'Fantastic Appearances of a Theme by Hector Berlioz' would have a secure place in the performing repertoire. Based on Mephistopheles' "Song of the Flea", this is essentially a set of variations for orchestra but one conceived on a huge scale - it comes in at 48 minutes long in this performance and that is with the inexplicable and irritating omission of the ninth "appearance" (apparently the cut only being introduced here because it was common to do so when the work was regularly performed between the wars). If the work's length suggests it might be a rather diffuse listening experience, it soon becomes clear on hearing it that this is not the case: although it is, of course, played without a break, Braunfels groups the variations so that they effectively function as extended movements; indeed, one analysis by a contemporary of the composer "read" the score as a symphony in disguise. Central to the work is a gorgeously scored trio of slower variations, at the heart of which the fifth "appearance" forms a tender nocturne. Other variations are linked across the work as a whole, sometimes quite closely - the playful earlier variations build up to the tempestuous third "appearance", a driven and storm-wracked interlude that is to find a counterpart later on in the tenth variation, from whence the music gradually evolves into a funeral march via the next variation.

If there is an official programme to the work as a whole, we are not told what it is but the quotation of the melody "To die for the fatherland", the work's composition dates (1914-17) and the palpable sense of grief and tragedy before the final movement suggest that the events of the Great War ultimately lent the finished result a broader emotional significance than it might originally have had when Braunfels first conceived it. Despite occasional links that the booklet makes to the 'Faust', legend however, there doesn't seem to be any firm basis for attempts to ground parts of this music in descriptions of characters or scenes; I did write in my listening notes that the orchestral colours and grotesquerie of the ninth variation seem to signal a marked reference to the `Songe d'une nuit du Sabbat' from Berlioz's `Symphonie Fantastique', though I'd hazard that this is less an attempt to depict supernatural shenanigans and more a respectful tip of the hat from Braunfels to the French composer whom he so admired and who - at least partly - inspired this richly rewarding orchestral fantasy.

The relatively early Serenade, Op.20 isn't perhaps as striking a piece as the 'Fantastic Appearances' but it also demonstrates Braunfels' sophisticated approach to harmony, here at the service of creating a warmly evocative idyll rather than an orchestral tour-de-force. The tones of the horn that open the first movement locate it firmly within the tradition of pastoral German Romantic music, a mood that is maintained throughout both in the rustic livelier movements and in the hauntingly lovely third movement, where the composer's atmospheric writing for the woodwind is a particularly notable feature. The second movement - fairly vigorous dance-like music, with a particularly energetic part for the timpani and a good deal of bucolic piping - is charmingly witty; the finale is more straightforward and draws upon earlier material to round events off cyclically. Braunfels supplied no programme (nor does the music particularly suggest that there should be one) but he did apparently state that the Serenade "mirrored the happiness of his young marriage", which I can well believe listening to this generally serene and cloud-free musical landscape.

As I stated at the start of my review, the performances here by the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Dennis Russell Davies really are first class, as assured in the idylls of the Serenade as they are in the more virtuoso passages of the `Fantastic Appearances'. In conjunction with excellent sound quality, this all makes for a winning disc for anyone who enjoys music of the Late Romantic period.

Highly recommended.


Walter Braunfels: Concerto for Organ, Boys Choir and Orchestra etc.
Walter Braunfels: Concerto for Organ, Boys Choir and Orchestra etc.
Price: £12.19

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Decent, if not oustanding, performances but still a worthy and rewarding survey of Braunfels' music, 22 Jan. 2013
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Without a doubt this release is a valuable one: partly because it contains three compositions from across Braunfels' career, enabling the listener to hear how his music changed over the decades; partly - and quite simply - because it pretty much doubles the number of his orchestral works currently in the catalogue. Whether it will win the composer any new converts or foster further interest from the record labels remains to be seen but, though much of the music here is less immediately appealing than that on CPO's disc devoted to his orchestral music*, there is a good deal here that repays repeated listening.

The organ concerto is a striking and deeply serious piece, born of the composer's post-war conversion to Catholicism. The excision of the woodwind sections from his orchestral complement is explained in the notes as due to composer deeming them superfluous alongside the organ; that said, despite the range of "colours" available from the organ, their absence does lend the piece a distinctive sobriety that it wouldn't have necessarily had otherwise - combined with the hieratic presence of the brass and timpani (plus bass drum) at key moments and the presence of a choir at the conclusion of the second and third movements, this quality emphasises the quasi-devotional feel that this concert work consistently manifests. The use of compositional techniques derived from sacred music - chorales, fugue - also locates the work more in the sphere of sacred music than concert music. The heart of the work is, as the composer himself acknowledged, the extended central movement, a deeply felt piece, though the quite dramatic opening 'Fantasie' and the magisterial fugue that forms the finale are no less impressive; the imposing brass statement at the climax of the fugue and the subsequent reappearance of the choir are fittingly both grandiose and cathartic for a work that charts such a profound sense of emotional journey.

The two other works here are from either end of Braunfels' career: the 'Toccata, Adagio and Fugue' for organ is still more austere than the concerto and a world away from the opulent Late Romanticism of the works with which he announced himself as a significant new composer at the start of the twentieth century; it can surely be no surprise that long gestation of this piece began in 1933 when the Nazis came to power and ended during the second world war. This is not music of radical modernism, however, and retains the links with musical tradition that Braunfels was always to espouse; there is lyrical tenderness to be found here, in the 'Adagio' and in parts of the fugal final section, but the prevailing tone is a thoughtful and quite often understated one.

The appearance of the 'Symphonic Variations on an Old French Nursery Song' comes as a stark, almost disconcerting contrast to what has preceded it. It is a lighter, more playful work than the `Fantastic Appearances of a Theme by Hector Berlioz', Op.25, though the music foreshadows aspects of that score with a short passage of humorous grotesquerie at around the 7 minute mark. According to the liner notes, it garnered several positive reviews when it was first performed and you can understand why as it is an inventive and assured piece, the quality of which becomes remarkable when you realise it was Braunfels' "first major symphonic work" (according to the booklet). It remained in the German repertoire until his music was banned by the Nazis.

This release is an extremely worthy enterprise but not one that I can quite muster a five star rating for: by no stretch are these poor performances, yet there is something about the recorded sound that is rather flat, most evident in the variations but also in the concerto too - the organ, brass and timpani come across with impressive presence and clarity but by contrast the strings lack immediacy and weight, leaving the whole feeling slightly unbalanced; I don't know whether this problem stems from the engineering or the performance (or merely the number of players) and, for me, it is certainly not a deal-breaker but it does merit mentioning. I also have to say that in terms of performance quality I don't think any of these recordings here are unbeatable ones either - I could imagine the strings in the concerto having more radiance (this too might be due to the balance issue I have already mentioned) and I could certainly imagine the string writing being played with a sharper, cleaner sense of attack. I was left with a similar feeling in respect of the variations as well, the sense that maybe we are not hearing everything the score has to offer in terms of wit and charm.

Nonetheless this is a recommendable disc, with those caveats taken into account, and enriches our knowledge of a composer whose long overdue rehabilitation is, sad to say, seemingly still only proceeding in fits and starts.

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* Walter Braunfels: Phantastische Erscheinungen, Op. 25; Serenade, Op. 20


Heinrich Hofmann: Eine Schauspiels-Overtüre Op.28, Symphony Frithjof E flat major Op. 22, Ungarische Suite Op.16
Heinrich Hofmann: Eine Schauspiels-Overtüre Op.28, Symphony Frithjof E flat major Op. 22, Ungarische Suite Op.16
Offered by Fulfillment Express
Price: £12.45

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Another welcome rediscovery from the Romantic period by Sterling Records, 18 Jan. 2013
This latest release in Sterling's invaluable investigation of forgotten corners of the Romantic repertoire is a gem, resurrecting the music of a composer who - though barely a footnote in musical history books now - was once one of Europe's most performed in the last few decades of the nineteenth century. The liner notes quote a contemporary of Hofmann's, writing in the Musical Times in 1882: [He] 'writes for the masses without condescending to the level of common taste. The character of his pieces, their scope and form of expression... bespeak a desire for "the greatest happiness of the greatest number"'; the booklet writer detects a rather "snobbish" tone in this characterisation of the composer but, be that as it may, I do think it is an essentially accurate summing up of his musical style, which is rather eclectic and generally conservative. Still, not every sculpture has to be by Michelangelo or Henry Moore nor does every work of literature have to be by the likes of a Shakespeare or a Goethe to be aesthetically pleasing and what Hofmann might lack in originality he more than makes up for with his gift for writing strong melodies, for craftsmanship and skilful orchestration.

The essentials of Hofmann's idiom are encapsulated in the overture that acts as a curtain raiser to this programme. To be sure the presence of Mendelssohn's `A Midsummer Night's Dream' Overture is to be found in the string writing that marks the start of this piece's `Allegro' section, but the addition of the harp to Hofmann's orchestral complement lends a distinctive (and, perhaps, slightly more modern) colour of its own to his material. The lovely and sonorously scored introduction, however, is certainly not Mendelssohnian; this attractive, broad melody returns at a faster pace in the coda to round off this short but enjoyable and well-wrought work with a sense of occasion.

Hofmann's only symphony is a programmatic piece on the subject of `Frithjof's Saga': dating from around 1300, this Icelandic tale became popular enough in the nineteenth century to inspire musical treatment by various musicians, including Bruch, Draeseke and the Dutch composer, Wagenaar* - of these (and other) pieces that draw upon the saga, Hofmann's 1874 symphony was the most successful and his piece became one of the Romantic era's most performed symphonies across Europe up until the First World War. The liner notes usefully outline the story and its depiction in musical terms but in essence this is a conventionally laid out Romantic symphony and extra-musical suggestions are pretty generalised (the more descriptive `Intermezzo' aside, perhaps - though, I have to say, the dancing fairy-folk of that movement's outer sections and the galumphing giants of the trio feel a little incongruous and naive in the context of the work as a whole). Even though it precedes the overture by a year, `Frithjof' displays more awareness of contemporary currents in musical language, I think: the first subject of the opening `Allegro con fuoco' recalls - both in the shape and the handling of its material - the corresponding first subject of Raff's fifth symphony, `Lenore', which had premiered two years before Hofmann's symphony; there is an urgency here and in the development section too though, a forward drive reminiscent of Schumann's `Rhenish', that really lives up to the "con fuoco" marking the composer prescribes for the movement. The pace relaxes for the appearances of his lovely second subject (apparently a depiction of the saga's heroine, Ingeborg), which is tinged with melancholy and foreshadows the atmospheric and very beautiful `Adagio' to come, one of the highlights of this disc. The finale, which like the `Adagio' occasionally contains some mild hints of Wagner, revisits the momentum of the opening movement albeit the tone is now increasingly one of triumph and I think Hofmann handles his material quite adeptly - there is no sense of this music being overblown or full of empty posturing - and as a conclusion it is a very satisfying movement.

The `Hungarian Suite' is another work that was popular in Hofmann's lifetime: in part this was no doubt because of the vogue for Hungarian music at the time it was written (1873) but it has intrinsic merits that make it worth hearing aside from passing fashions, being as beautifully orchestrated and as rich in melody as the other pieces recorded here. The highlight for me is the beautiful `Romanze' at the centre, all too short at just under six minutes in length, but the two outer movements that frame this episode are extremely attractive too, with their evocations of both the ceremonial and the folk dance respectively; the recall of music from the first movement in the coda of the finale rounds proceedings off neatly and with a considerable sense of grandeur, well caught by both the artists and the recording.

As a production, in terms of performance and sound quality, values here are generally very good. The Philharmonische Orchester Altenburg-Gera under Eric Solén's baton might not always be the most polished ensemble but on the whole they play Hofmann's music with real verve - and with sensitivity too, where called for. A fairly comprehensive booklet essay combines biographical information with useful commentary on the individual works, an element not to be sniffed at these days when so many labels provide only the barest of facts (if at all) about the music they are offering and well-nigh essential when the composer is so little known to modern listeners.

I make no claims for originality or profundity in any of the music here but for my money all the works recorded here make for attractive and rewarding listening; indeed at times, in much of the symphony and parts of the suite, I'd say Hofmann isn't a world away from some of his more illustrious contemporaries in terms of craftsmanship and memorability. This is a recommendable disc for anyone who enjoys music of the High Romantic period and decidedly yet another feather in Sterling's cap.

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* Wagenaar: Symphonic Poems (The Taming Of The Shrew/ Summer Of Life/ Sau L& David)
Comment Comments (4) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 29, 2014 6:48 PM GMT


Trout Quintet / Arpeggione Sonata / Notturno
Trout Quintet / Arpeggione Sonata / Notturno
Price: £23.48

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A decent period performance of the 'Arpeggione' Sonata but the exuberant, life-filled 'Trout' is the main reason to hear this, 13 Jan. 2013
I missed this period performance recording of Schubert's 'Trout' Quintet when it was first released by Sony back in 1998 and last year it showed as deleted in the Amazon listings, though it now appears to be available again. I was very pleased therefore to obtain a copy when it was given a new lease of life by Newton Classics.* And how full of life this performance is! Immerseel and L'Archibudelli take the movements at fair lick compared to what one might term "traditional" readings of the score but there is no sense of the music sounding rushed or hard-driven, rather they capture beautifully the effervescence and perennial good spirits of this timeless piece. Dynamics are carefully nuanced as are Schubert's rhythms - listen to the start of the development section in the opening "Allegro vivace", for instance, pregnant with expectation, which points up the surging passion of the strings from 8'30" onwards. The period double bass sounds wonderful, which not only reinforces the rhythmic underpinning inherent in its role but also the extra colour and richness that Schubert's innovative instrumentation brings to the score. I have owned the recording by the Academy of Ancient Music Chamber Ensemble** (also on period instruments) since it was first issued on CD and frequently returned to it as an alternative to classic non-HIP performances, revelling in the clarity of texture and the distinctive sound of the fortepiano; it remains a fine performance (and the inclusion of several lieder, including `The Trout itself is a nice touch) but, that said, I now find myself taking this recording by Immerseel and L'Archibudelli off the shelf far more frequently, simply for the sheer joie de vivre they bring to their music making. The one movement where the AAM Chamber Ensemble scores palpably over their rivals is in the 'Allegretto' set of variations, to my ears, where Immerseel and L'Archibudelli make unduly heavy weather of some of the stormier central passages, an exaggeration of effect that is curiously at odds with their judicious interpretation of the rest of the score.

The `Arpeggione' Sonata is played by Immerseel at the piano and Anner Bylsma on the cello (specifically, as the editorial states - a five-string, violoncello piccolo); both the sonata and the `Nocturne' are given what I would describe as straightforward performances - technically they are unlikely to disappoint, I would think, and Bylsma shapes the melodic lines in the lyrical passages of the sonata quite nicely but neither performance quite reveals everything Schubert had to offer in terms of emotion and poetry, despite the engaging tone of Bylsma's instrument of choice. These will not supplant any of the acclaimed "traditional' (as opposed to "authentic") recordings in the catalogue but period performance versions of all the works on this disc are rather rarer than one would imagine so it is good to hear them on original instruments and with the distinctive colouring a fortepiano brings to the proceedings.

Ironically, the `Arpeggione' Sonata was my primary reason for purchasing this disc, assuming unwisely as I did that the sonata would be performed either on an original arpeggione or a modern reconstruction of one - as it stands, I am yet to hear the intriguing-sounding instrument that inspired Schubert but, while this purchase was an object lesson in checking details of a recording more thoroughly before splashing out, the serendipitous discovery of Immerseel and `L'Archibudelli' in the `Trout' Quintet has proved to be more than ample compensation. Obviously, given that the copy I own is the Newton Classics reissue, I can't comment specifically on the sound quality of this original release but reviews from the time suggest that the sound here is as excellent as it is in the recording's new guise.

Minor qualifications about the `Arpeggione' Sonata taken on board, this is a welcome and recommendable re-release - and with regard to the `Trout' Quintet specifically, very much so in fact.

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* Schubert: Trout Quintet

** Schubert: Trout Quintet · 7 Lieder /Lubin · Ainsley · Academy of Ancient Music Chamber Ensemble


Schubert; Forrellenquintet
Schubert; Forrellenquintet
Price: £11.53

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A decent period performance of the 'Arpeggione' Sonata but the exuberant, life-filled 'Trout' is the main reason to hear this, 13 Jan. 2013
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
I missed this period performance recording of Schubert's 'Trout' Quintet when it was first released by Sony back in 1998 so I was very pleased to see it given a new lease of life by Newton Classics.* And how full of life this version is! Immerseel and L'Archibudelli take the movements at fair lick compared to what one might term "traditional" readings of the score but there is no sense of the music sounding rushed or hard-driven, rather they capture beautifully the effervescence and perennial good spirits of this timeless piece. Dynamics are carefully nuanced as are Schubert's rhythms - listen to the start of the development section in the opening "Allegro vivace", for instance, pregnant with expectation, which points up the surging passion of the strings from 8'30" onwards. The double bass is captured wonderfully in what is an admirably clear and well-balanced recording all round, which not only reinforces the rhythmic underpinning inherent in its role but also the extra colour and richness that Schubert's innovative instrumentation brings to the score. I have owned the recording by the Academy of Ancient Music Chamber Ensemble** (also on period instruments) since it was first issued on CD and frequently returned to it as an alternative to classic non-HIP performances, revelling in the clarity of texture and the distinctive sound of the fortepiano; it remains a fine performance (and the inclusion of several lieder, including `The Trout itself is a nice touch) but, that said, I now find myself taking this "new" recording by Immerseel and L'Archibudelli off the shelf far more frequently, simply for the sheer joie de vivre they bring to their music making. The one movement where the AAM Chamber Ensemble scores palpably over their rivals is in the 'Allegretto' set of variations, to my ears, where Immerseel and L'Archibudelli make unduly heavy weather of some of the stormier central passages, an exaggeration of effect that is curiously at odds with their judicious interpretation of the rest of the score.

The `Arpeggione' Sonata is played by Immerseel at the piano and Anner Bylsma on the cello (specifically, as the editorial states - a five-string, violoncello piccolo); both the sonata and the `Nocturne' are given what I would describe as straightforward performances - technically they are unlikely to disappoint, I would think, and Bylsma shapes the melodic lines in the lyrical passages of the sonata quite nicely but neither performance quite reveals everything Schubert had to offer in terms of emotion and poetry, despite the engaging tone of Bylsma's instrument of choice. These will not supplant any of the acclaimed "traditional' (as opposed to "authentic") recordings in the catalogue but period performance versions of all the works on this disc are rather rarer than one would imagine so it is good to hear them on original instruments and with the distinctive colouring a fortepiano brings to the proceedings.

Ironically, the `Arpeggione' Sonata was my primary reason for purchasing this disc, assuming unwisely as I did that the sonata would be performed either on an original arpeggione or a modern reconstruction of one - as it stands, I am yet to hear the intriguing-sounding instrument that inspired Schubert but, while this purchase was an object lesson in checking details of a recording more thoroughly before splashing out, the serendipitous discovery of Immerseel and `L'Archibudelli' in the `Trout' Quintet has proved to be more than ample compensation.

Minor qualifications about the `Arpeggione' Sonata taken on board, this is a welcome and recommendable re-release - and with regard to the `Trout' Quintet specifically, very much so in fact.

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* At the time I purchased this release, a good many months ago, the original Sony recording was deleted but in the interim it seems to have appeared again: Trout Quintet / Arpeggione Sonata / Notturno

** Schubert: Trout Quintet · 7 Lieder /Lubin · Ainsley · Academy of Ancient Music Chamber Ensemble


Zelenski/ Zarebski: Piano Quintet/ Piano Quartet (Jonathan Plowright) (Hyperion: CDA67905)
Zelenski/ Zarebski: Piano Quintet/ Piano Quartet (Jonathan Plowright) (Hyperion: CDA67905)
Price: £14.72

15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Essential listening for admirers of Romantic era chamber music, 5 Dec. 2012
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
Zelenski's piano quartet has long been a favourite of mine, since a recording of it was released many years ago on the now-defunct Olympia label (where it was coupled with an equally rewarding piano quartet by Noskowski: Polish Piano Quartets). That disc is now deleted, of course, so this new recording - in more modern sound - is very welcome indeed and should serve to introduce this unduly neglected composer to a new audience. Neither this new Hyperion disc nor the Olympia release provide a date for the quartet's composition but I would hazard a guess that it hails from the 1880s like the quintet by Zarebski that is also on this disc: certainly Zelenski's musical language is the essence of High Romantic chamber music - impassioned, richly melodic and conceived on a symphonic scale. The outer movements testify to his sound handling of musical structure, as befits a conservatory professor, but there is nothing academic or fusty-sounding about this work, which is marked by emotional warmth and sometimes urgent forward momentum. The `Romanza: Andante sostenuto' is really quite beautiful, its songlike melodic writing a good example of the composer's lyrical gifts, though it has to be said they are amply on display throughout the work as a whole; the liner notes are surely right to draw attention to the return of the movement's opening material after the impassioned - tempestuous, even - central episode as it is one those hold-your-breath moments and bespeaks a composer of considerable imagination. I tried to think of another, more familiar composer to relate Zelenski's music to for those coming to this work for the first time and in the end I settled for Dvorak - but, that is not to say that his music sounds derivative of the Czech composer or even like it in the detail, merely that the scale of the piece, the lyrical impetus and emotional warmth seem to me to suggest that the two shared the same approach to chamber music during this period and that if you enjoy the music of one you are just as likely to enjoy that of the other.

The piano quintet of Zarebski was entirely new territory to me, although it is a piece I have wanted to hear for a long time. It too is very obviously a product of the High Romantic period (it dates from 1885, the year of Zarebski's untimely death from tuberculosis), written on the same scale and with a similar lyrical impetus, though it strikes me at times as a rather darker and more dramatic work. It is, I think, a more individual and perhaps more forward looking work too, with a tendency to innovate that isn't a pronounced feature of Zelenski's quartet. The opening `Allegro', for example, charts a wider ranging tonal journey than its counterpart in the piano quartet, a series of unexpected and refreshing modulations during its development section exemplifying his refusal to be bound by convention. Given that the composer was a pianist (a pupil and protégé of Liszt) and better known as a performer than a composer I had expected the work to at least be dominated by the piano if not perhaps conceived as piano concerto manqué; Zarebski's handling of his instrumental lines is, however, extremely well-balanced and the piano quite often provides a supporting role to the strings. His scoring for the latter provides further examples of his imagination, with some unusual colouristic effects, not least in the muted strings that make the opening and closing sections of the `Adagio' so atmospheric and haunting. Another notable feature is the return of material from earlier in the work during the finale, which is judiciously handled and makes for a doubly satisfying conclusion.

Jonathan Plowright, on piano, and the Szymanowski Quartet turn in exemplary performances that really capture the spirit of the individual works and happily, Hyperion's engineers have provided a pristine recording too, one that sounds utterly natural and warm but which doesn't miss a detail even in the most richly scored passages.

This is an absolutely wonderful issue, without a doubt one of my discs of 2012 (no mean feat, coming it as it does at the very end of a year during which I've yet again spent far more money than I sensibly should on my CD collection!). Both works are beautifully written and extremely rewarding, and played here with the care and affection that they merit; for anyone who loves chamber music from the latter half of the nineteenth century, I'd say it is essential listening.

Very much recommended.
Comment Comments (5) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Feb 10, 2013 10:42 AM GMT


Franck: Symphony in D; Overtures - Ce quon entend sur la montagne La lutte de lhiver et du Printemps
Franck: Symphony in D; Overtures - Ce quon entend sur la montagne La lutte de lhiver et du Printemps
Price: £15.45

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Superb performances and sound quality make this disc of familiar and unfamiliar Franck required listening, 5 Dec. 2012
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This really is an exceptional disc on many levels, not least on account of the rarities it contains alongside the familiar symphony in D minor but also because of the fine performances conductor Christian Arming (a new name to me and one that I will be keeping an eye out for in future) elicits from the Liege Royal Philharmonic.

There are not a few recordings of Franck's symphony in the catalogue, of course, some of which (Monteux, for instance) are considered classics so for a lot of people and most certainly for Franckophiles the novelties will be the primary reason for acquiring this disc; for those who are not avid collectors of or newcomers to the work, however, you can still be assured that you are getting an excellent interpretation of the score. Arming shapes the lengthy opening movement beautifully and there is a real sense of being on a journey from the Stygian gloom of the 'Lento' introduction to the imposing finality of the coda. His sense of pace never slackens and the monumental climax - which the liner notes describe as "where upper and lower parts grind ineluctably against each other, like huge tectonic plates" (one of those apt analogies that once read stick with you whenever you hear the passage in question) - sounds as impressive as it does inevitable. The sense of purpose that Arming brings to the music is equally apparent in the remainder of the work. The 'Allegretto' is finely judged and performed with a keen ear for the underlying melancholy of the movement; Arming captures the haunting beauty of the closing bars perfectly, which points up all the more the sharp contrast that marks the start of the uplifting finale. Here, as with the opening movement, there is a tremendous sense of momentum in Arming's reading of the score that is very satisfying and the final summing up of Franck's symphony is resplendent, an effect reinforced by the sterling work of the sound engineers.

An exceptionally fine interpretation of the symphony then but what makes this disc essential listening for Franck enthusiasts - and, I'd warrant, for anyone interested in Romantic era music generally as well - is the early symphonic poem `Ce qu'on entend sur la montagne'. It is a notable enough fact that Franck was apparently working on this piece at the same time as Liszt was writing his orchestral work of the same title but it appears that Franck may well have pipped the Hungarian innovator to the post in having produced music's first symphonic poem. Although it is a similar length to Liszt's piece, Franck does not attempt to follow Victor Hugo's text in a detailed or literal way but seemingly takes as his inspiration the poem's duality of the sublimity of nature and the feelings of humankind in the face of it, a creative decision that results in a much tauter musical structure. It's an extraordinarily evocative piece, quite unlike anything else I've heard from the 1840s in scoring and poetic atmosphere. The grandeur of the brass statement at around the three minute mark really does suggest the imposing peaks rising into the heavens - I wondered whether Franck had been influenced by the opening of Berlioz's `Harold in Italy' here (there is certainly a similarity of effect) but Franck's crystalline opening sounds far more modern, even though only just over a decade separates the two. Indeed, there is a great deal here that sounds far ahead of its time and I found that on the odd occasion something reminded me of another composer it was usually one writing at a much later date: the liner notes mention Bruckner in this respect but I don't have enough experience of Bruckner's music to know whether that is the case or not; there were a couple of times, however, when I was reminded of Sibelius in Franck's writing for the strings and particularly how he uses the lower strings to underpin melodic material in the woodwind and horn sections and create a sense of forward movement. Irrespective of whether Franck or Liszt had the idea for a symphonic poem (and one on this subject) first, Franck's `Ce qu'on entend sur la montagne' is a fascinating, rewarding and beautiful work in its own right and one whose neglect is to be lamented. I'm extremely grateful to have made its acquaintance.

The remainder of this issue is given over to equally rarely heard fare, if not music of such compelling originality. The allegorical ballet sequence `La lutte de l'hiver et du printemps' derives from the late opera, `Hulda' (which was not a conspicuous success at its premiere and which has been pretty much ignored since). It not unfair to describe it as a fairly conventional example of its kind but it is energetic and tuneful and makes for very enjoyable listening; the orchestration is a little thick at times perhaps but there is some fine writing for the brass (which occasionally recalled Tchaikovsky, curiously - not two composers I've ever linked in my mind before).

This is, I think, undoubtedly a five star disc and it is one that I have returned to several times since I purchased it, especially for the symphonic poem - and I imagine I will continue to return to it frequently as it is rewarding on so many levels.

Highly recommended.


Onslow: String Quintets Op.34 and Op.35
Onslow: String Quintets Op.34 and Op.35
Price: £16.85

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Eloquent advocacy for two of Onslow's finely-wrought string quintets, 20 Nov. 2012
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I seem to have collected quite a few recordings of Onslow's chamber works over the years and while I don't return to his music as frequently as to that of other composers, when I do it is often with a renewed admiration for his craftsmanship. The string quintets (of which he turned out no less than thirty four across his career) strike me as showcasing the best of his creative talents and the MDG releases of some of those works over the past decade strike me equally as some of the best performances of his music on disc. Acclaimed in his lifetime as a writer of chamber music by contemporaries such as Schubert, Schumann and Mendelssohn, awarded honours by the musical world of his time and even nicknamed "the French Beethoven", his fall from grace was fairly spectacular after his death; in the twentieth century, Slonimsky dismissed his entire oeuvre as "facile, conventional and competent". I'm not sure how much of his music Slonimsky actually looked at before writing Onslow off - not much, I'd imagine, and he undoubtedly heard less (if any at all).

Certainly neither of the quintets here warrants such cavalier dismissal. The A minor in particular is a very satisfying piece, with a substantial and weighty opening 'Allegro' of some quarter of an hour's duration: like Schubert in his A minor 'Rosamunde' quartet, Onslow's music here has a lyrical rather that a dramatic cast, both first and second subjects being broadly drawn melodies that contribute to the strongly flowing quality of this movement; there are more animated passages in the development section - they consist primarily of decorative figuration in the higher registers - but generally Onslow eschews any of the `Sturm und Drang' elements that the minor key signature might suggest (although the pace steps up a little for the fleeting drama of the coda, a reminder that the composer often displayed a knack for rounding off movements satisfyingly and imaginatively). The inner movements of both quintets are of a piece with each other: designated `Minuetto', the second movements are more scherzo-like in their vigour and animation, while the `Adagio espressivo' and `Andante cantabile' (in Op.34 and Op.35 respectively) both make judicious use of the cello in elaborating their fine thematic writing. The finale of the A minor quintet is vivacious and ends the work on a high-spirited note; that of the G major, perhaps to counter the more lively opening movement in this work, contains music that alternates the quirky with the rustic, again finishing with a neatly conceived and enjoyable coda.

Quintett Momento Musicale turn in impeccable performances, beautifully judged, and they seem to have the measure of Onslow's sound world, never trying to force the music to achieve more than it is capable of; notably they opt for a double bass instead of a second cello (an "ad libitum" sanctioned by the composer, after hearing the bass player Dragonetti perform this role in one of his quintets) - this adds a richness of sonority and body to the music that is very satisfying. MDG's sound quality serves the artists (and Onslow) well, being expertly balanced, detailed and warm.

If you have never heard any of Onslow's chamber works before, this disc makes for an excellent introduction to his music in that arena and comes with a warm recommendation from this listener.


Charles-Simon Catel: Sémiramis
Charles-Simon Catel: Sémiramis
Price: £23.39

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A fascinating and rewarding operatic revival, superbly performed, 15 Nov. 2012
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French opera during the Napoleonic period was seemingly something of a hotbed of proto-Romantic innovation, with experiments in orchestration, harmony and other aspects of opera that were to become commonplace (the widespread use of the reminiscence theme, for example) during the Romantic era; it was to French opera of this period that Weber looked for inspiration in his aim to create a distinctively German national opera, reflected in his warmly appreciative critical writing about the music of Mehul, Dalayrac and Cherubini, amongst others, and he backed up this interest by introducing their operas to the German stage. One would scarcely credit the historical importance or the imaginative fertility of French opera during this period from a glance at the record catalogues or current theatre repertoires, however, and the output of even the two most famous practitioners of Parisian opera - Cherubini and Mehul - are barely represented on disc nowadays: aside from umpteen recordings of the former's `Médée' (usually in the later, inauthentic Italian version), there have only been a few of their other works recorded and some of those are atypical or predate the period in question.

This new recording of Catel's `Sémiramis' is thus a very welcome one and proves to be so not just in terms of historical interest but in musical distinction too; indeed, it is a remarkably accomplished piece of musical drama, I think, and its quality all the more remarkable when one learns that it was the young composer's first opera. All the principal characters are accorded arias, most very fine, Catel's attractive way with melody reinforced by his harmonic sense* and his instinct (and imagination) for pointedly coloured orchestration. His ability to create a character musically is apparent from the appearance of Sémiramis in the first act - her "guilt" aria is a very fine piece but his dramatic accompanied recitatives are just as instrumental in completing his portrayal of the tormented queen.

Catel proves himself a master of the ensemble and obviously knew his Gluck and his Mozart. These extended scenes really propel the action forward and there is no sense of lingering over musical delights at the expense of the drama; no doubt his librettist's paring down of Voltaire's original play to its essentials was an aid to Catel in this his first theatrical work but I do think his own instincts for combining music and drama merit recognition as well. According to the fine booklet essay, contemporary critics found the opera to be too weighed down with tragedy, at the expense of other elements: though I doubt that would trouble many present day listeners, I also don't think it is the quite the full story either - there are some lovely duets for Arsaces and Azema, and the balance between drama and lyricism seems to me to be handled quite well; certainly, it doesn't have the same concentrated and unrelenting air of calamity that so colours Cherubini's `Médée' from the eponymous heroine's first appearance; the first act concludes with a pair of dances, the second "African" dance piquant and vivacious in a tradition derived from Rameau perhaps, an element that would be completely incongruous in `Médée' and while the final curtain can hardly be said to fall on a happy ending there is musically and dramatically a sense of order being restored.

The `African' dance mentioned above provides an obvious opportunity for orchestral colour but his use of his instrumental forces is imaginative and apposite throughout; the hieratic pronouncements from the trombones at key points to underline the dictates and warnings of the High Priest or to evoke a sense of fear are very effective if not, perhaps, remarkably original but other passages are more innovative - the striking and ominous conclusion of the otherwise conventional overture, for instance, or the fluid use of the bassoon to create an atmosphere of mysterious anticipation. Albeit not strictly "orchestral" colour, his setting of the ghost's words for male chorus is also notable and deserves mention, though the actual brief appearance of the spectre struck me as the one dip in dramatic inspiration in the score and is a little understated in comparison to the rest of the work.

The performances are excellent all round, without a single weak link in the cast, and with sharply detailed and vital playing and singing from the chorus and orchestra of Le Concert Spirituel under Hervé Niquet. Mathias Vidal is a light-toned tenor, ideally suited I think to the part of Arsaces - he makes the most of the more dramatic aspects of his part but he also blends his voice beautifully with Gabrielle Philiponet (as Azema) in their duets. Maria Riccarda Wesseling is splendid as the ill-fated Sémiramis, passionate and sympathetic.

All in all, this is a highly recommendable set, the production values of which match the excellence of the music and performances; anyone particularly interested in the music of this period should snap it up immediately, of course, lest it disappear from the listings (rare repertoire so often seems to have a short shelf life in the catalogues, unfortunately) but I think there is much here to interest the casual listener also or, indeed, anyone curious about the influences on Weber, who was to learn so much from the music of Catel and his peers. This is a five star release without a doubt and leaves me hoping that we get to hear his later operas, such as `Les Bayadères' or the opéra héroïque `Wallace ou Le Ménestrel écossais', sooner rather than later.

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* Catel had in fact published a treatise on harmony just prior to writing `Sémiramis'


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