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Stavenhagen: Piano Concerto No.2
Stavenhagen: Piano Concerto No.2
Price: £9.85

4.0 out of 5 stars An improvement on the First Concerto but Stavenhagen still struggles to write a memorable lyrical tune., 5 Feb 2013
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Bernhard Stavenhagen was a German pianist, conductor and composer born in Greiz in 1868. In 1885 he became a pupil of Liszt at Weimar and soon matured into one of the finest pianists of his time, performing in Europe, Russia and North America. He also held conducting posts in Weimar, Munich and Geneva where, in subscription concerts, he introduced many new works by the leading composers of the day. In 1914 he became one of that select band of people to die on Christmas day.

Stavenhagen was not a prolific composer and nearly all his music involves the piano. His two largest works are two piano concertos. (Wikipedia mentions a third but I think this is an error.) The Second Concerto dates from 1912 and was performed in November of that year with M.H. Rebold, one of Stavenhagen's pupils, as soloist and the composer conducting. In common with many other concertos of the time the full score was not published. The performing material has not survived and the work only existed in a reduction for two pianos. For its first German performance the concerto was orchestrated by Joachim-Dietrich Link. I have to say that he made a very good job of it, having clearly studied the orchestration of the First Concerto.

The concerto is on a larger scale than the First. It is in four movements which last over forty minutes. In spite of this, it is rather more subdued in tone and, surprisingly, there is very little opportunity for virtuoso display. It even ends quietly, something which is almost unheard of in Romantic concertos.

After a slow introduction featuring a stepwise string phrase the first movement gets underway with a dramatic and highly rhythmical first subject. The music is well sustained and exciting but the subsidiary material is less striking. As in the First Concerto, Stavenhagen's lyrical gifts are not up to the task. The music does create a lovely Romantic atmosphere, however, for which Dr Link's colourful orchestration must take a good deal of the credit. A reference to the opening string phrase heralds the development which is imaginative and well sustained. It is built almost entirely on the first theme. There is no formal recapitulation, the second subject material not returning. Instead the movement gradually runs down, returning to the music of the introduction.

The slow movement follows without a break. It is a clear ternary structure. Again, however, Stavenhagen struggles to come up with memorable melodic material. It is the central rhythmical section which makes the strongest impression.

The scherzo is well written and entertaining but, again, its basic material is not really distinguished. The central section, also built on uninteresting material, is saved by Dr Link's glittering orchestration. (In general, there is a lot of harp and glockenspiel.)

The finale is the outstanding movement in this concerto. It is an odd movement, almost a compendium of late Romantic musical styles. I wondered if there might be a programme attached to it but the notes that come with this disc have nothing to say on the matter. The main theme has a Brahmsian feel but, within a few bars, the music has taken a Gallic turn, sounding like Faure or early Debussy. Later on (at 2 mins 9 secs) Fafner and Fasolt make an appearance and then the music adopts a Spanish flavour complete with castanets. The main theme becomes more prominent and the texture more contrapuntal until, at a cadenza (9 mins 14 secs), the soloist reintroduces material from the first movement. A solo violin joins the piano to muse on the main theme and the concerto ends by referring to its opening music. All this may sound like a bit of a hotchpotch but the various styles are effotlessly assimilated within an easy-going "allegro comodo" and the result is an enjoyable and entertaining ramble.

The disc concludes with three short songs, originally for voice and piano but here arranged for orchestra. The best of these is definitely the one for soprano, "Madchenlied", which reaches an almost Straussian level of expressive intensity. All the songs are well sung here.

Volkmar Lehmann is a fine soloist in the concerto and the orchestra, though not a front-rank ensemble, plays well. The recording is perfectly serviceable though the acoustic does not flatter the performers.

As I said in my review of Stavenhagen's First Concerto, if you would like to explore concertos by Liszt's pupils, the two outstanding examples I know are the one by Hans von Bronsart, only available in an enthusiastic and exciting if less than refined performance by Michael Ponti, and Eugen D'Albert's Second which has had a number of recordings. Again, for sheer panache, Ponti is in a class of his own.

Concerto for Violin & Orchestra
Concerto for Violin & Orchestra
Offered by Auvi Net Clásico SL
Price: £10.00

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Not all of this music shows Raff at his best but this is still a very worthwhile disc., 27 Jan 2013
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This is an indispensable issue for Raffians because it includes first and only recordings of "La Fee D'Amour" and the Suite for Violin and Orchestra. There is an alternative version of the First Violin Concerto (on Tudor) but that is in an edition by August Wilhemj which makes major alterations to the violin part, the orchestration and even the music's structure.

The 18 minute "La Fee d'Amour", Op.67 (1854) is, in effect, a miniature concerto though it is not traditionally constructed. It is a most attractive piece, melodically fresh and written with a Mendelssohnian ease and lightness of touch. The sleeve-note writer finds many parallels with the music of other composers but the work's title makes it clear that Raff was inviting comparison with Mendelssohn's music to "A Midsummer Night's Dream". The heart of "La Fee D'Amour" is the lovely melody of its slower central "movement" but there is also a fine development section, an imaginative cadenza and a quicksilver coda.

The "Suite for Violin and Orchestra" Op.180 dates from 1873. Rather like the slightly later "Suite for Piano and Orchestra" it uses Baroque titles for four of its five movements ("Preludio", "Minuetto", "Corrente" and "Aria") but it is not pastiche. Raff is here reimagining Baroque music from the perspective of a Romantic, albeit Classically oriented, composer. The "Preludio" is built on virtuoso Baroque figuration for the soloist and is largely harmonically propelled. There is also, however, a simple woodwind tune which the soloist repeats with decorating semiquavers. The "Minuetto"'s main theme is announced in double and triple stops and is, of course, intended to suggest Bach's solo violin music. There are two trios. The fast "Corrente" is another harmonically propelled movement. It is built on a nagging three note fragment which the soloist obsessively puts through its paces to a light orchestral accompaniment. This is Raff building a fine piece from virtually nothing; I was reminded of the scherzo from the Fourth Symphony. The "Aria" is built on a lovely melody which is first given to a pair of oboes. Beautifully extended and sustained, this is very much the Suite's highlight. Later on the tune is given to the French Horn. The finale is a "moto perpetuo". Before long, while the soloist continues above, the strings provide relief in the form of a very Raffian melody, attractively lyrical although, as is sometimes the case with Raff's tunes, just a little faceless. There is a brief contrapuntal passage. Counterpoint was very much a speciality of Raff's. All in all, then, this suite is a very worthwhile discovery.

The First Violin Concerto is, on the whole, less impressive. Its first movement is a typically Raffian extended version of sonata form. The main idea is rather plain but it is redeemed by a fine second theme. There is rather too much decorative writing for the soloist and that contrapuntal stiffening which distinguishes so much of Raff's music is absent. The ternary slow movement is more attractive although still somewhat anonymous melodically. On the Tudor disc, this movement is taken faster, rather to its advantage. The finale is a bit of a surprise, its march-like main theme seeming at first not at all suited to a violin concerto. This tune is rather in the manner of the once famous march from the "Lenore" symphony. The subsidiary theme is also march-like in character. The final pages give the soloist plenty of opportunities for display. This is another worthwhile piece, then, but it is not in the same class as the best of Raff's concertos, the one for piano, Op.185. The Second Violin Concerto is also superior to the First.

If you're not a confirmed Raffian, I would suggest that, as well as the Piano Concerto, you get to know the 3rd, 4th and 5th Symphonies before you explore the music on this disc.

Performances are fine but the recording is a little too reverberant so that some detail is lost. A good disc nevertheless.

Violin Concertos
Violin Concertos
Price: £17.13

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars 5 stars for Lange-Muller, 4 for Svendsen., 27 Jan 2013
This review is from: Violin Concertos (Audio CD)
Svendsen's Violin Concerto dates from 1869-1870 and was first heard in Leipzig in February 1872. Written in a stylistically anonymous Classically oriented version of Romanticism, it is attractive but not really memorable. The first movement starts with an orchestral exposition. Its opening three-note rising figure is to feature prominently in the movement. The second subject is pleasantly lyrical. A principal theme is reserved for the soloist. A tutti signals the end of the exposition. The ensuing development is strongly relevant thematically but not very compelling. It includes, towards its end, a lengthy passage in which the soloist plays arpeggios over fragments of melody in the orchestra. The tonic (A major) having been reestablished, the soloist restates his theme at 12 mins 18 secs and then reintroduces the rest of the material from the orchestral exposition. There is no cadenza, the movement ending rather perfunctorily. At over 15 mins, this movement is a long haul.

The other movements are better. The ternary slow movement is built on a grave theme which is stated at once by the strings. The soloist enters with a new theme. The rising three-note figure features throughout, especially in the central section. A brief anguished orchestral tutti culminating in a diminished seventh leads to the restatement of the main theme, now given to the soloist. After the theme with which the soloist entered is heard in an orchestral tutti, a brief coda brings the movement to a close.

The 12/8 finale has a lively main theme and some moderately attractive subsidiary material. Again there is rather a lot of that soloist-rushing-around-with-fragments-of-tune-in-the-orchestra writing which is not really a substitute for compelling development.

Svendsen's Violin Concerto, then, is certainly not a dud but it is neither memorable enough melodically nor challenging enough for a virtuoso violinist to give it a chance of establishing itself in the repertoire.

The disc also includes Svendsen's lovely and relatively familiar "Romance", Op.26.

Peter Lange-Muller (1850-1926) was a Danish composer whose style was not dissimilar to Svendsen's. He was very highly regarded in his time. Once Nielsen's progressive music had established itself in Denmark, however, it was not long before Lange-Muller's music was regarded as old-fashioned and was forgotten. The Violin Concerto is a very fine piece indeed, however. The first movement, with its highly contrasted melodic material, may be regarded as more of a fantasia. It is unusual in that the exposition is in triple time (3/4 or 9/8...I'm not sure how it's notated) but the development (beginning at 3 mins 39 secs) switches to simple time. It is delightfully inventive and unexpected. It's not long, however, before triple time is restored, the music becoming more compelling until the recapitulation arrives at 5 mins 52 secs. There is a virtuoso and highly inventive cadenza, beautifully played here, before a brief coda brings this splendidly imaginative and unusual movement to a close.

The brief (less than 5 mins) ternary slow movement is more of an intermezzo. It is slight but attractive, its middle flute-led section being a variant of the main theme.

Lange-Muller saves the best till last. This finale is a corking movement, Lange-Muller not losing concentration for a moment. The rising and falling scalic main theme may not strike you as interesting at first but its main function is to bind the movement together while Lange-Muller weaves all sorts of imaginative music around it. The theme has a strongly accented appendage and, in one form or another, it is never far away. There is a lovely contrasting subsidiary tune and that accented appendage gives rise to the movement's third theme. By the end, Lange-Muller has built up quite a head of steam and there is no lack of excitement. I urge you to investigate this fine concerto.

The performances, which seem to have been recorded in single takes, are first-rate and so is the recording although it is rather odd that the soloist is balanced so far to the left.

Zemlinsky Von: Es War Einm
Zemlinsky Von: Es War Einm
Price: £6.37

5.0 out of 5 stars A rather schizophrenic opera but with some lovely music....and Zemlinsky's greatest hit!, 27 Jan 2013
"Es War Einmal" ("Once Upon a Time") was Zemlinsky's second opera. Premiered in 1900 with Mahler conducting, it was a success and ran to twelve performances. It received two more productions, both in 1912, but then remained silent until the performance recorded here by Danish forces in 1987.

Written in the wake of Humperdinck's fairy-tale opera "Hansel and Gretel", "Es War Einmal" was an adaptation of a play by Holgar Drachmann whose plot was itself lifted from Hans Christian Andersen's fairy-tale "The Swineherd". The story is a familiar one. A haughty princess is searching for a husband. Having failed to win her hand, the Prince of Nordland disguises himself as a gypsy and, with the help of his servant, Kaspar and the King, who has grown tired of his daughter's dallying, tricks her into marrying him. Eventually, of course, she falls for the gypsy who then reveals his true identity.

As you would expect, much of the music is in the manner of Wagner and Humperdinck. In general the Prologue and the First Act are lighter in tone with relatively diatonic harmonies. Indeed some of the music is operetta-like in mood. There is one outstanding number which, I warn you, will soon get under your skin. For a while you will have to ration yourself as to how many times you play it in a day. It is a waltz-like chorus first heard in the orchestral interlude between the Prologue and Act 1 (Track 7) and then, in its vocal form, early on in the First Act (Track 11). There are a number of attractive folk-like tunes and also several recurring orchestral motives. Zemlinsky, does not, however, weave his motives into a captivating web of counterpoint as Humperdinck did. They merely recur from time to time as the story demands.

Zemlinsky had considerable difficulty with the finale of Act 1 and "Es War Einmal" is of particular interest because the last 3 minutes of the act were, in fact, composed by Mahler who had been acting as advisor.

In Act 2, once the Princess has been forced to marry and has been taken away by the "gypsy" to live in a "run-down hut" the music becomes more serious in tone. The harmonies are more chromatic and the vocal lines freer.... more "Tristan" than "Meistersinger". There is much fine music, however, even if, after the relatively frothy delights of Act 1, you will have to readjust quite markedly.

Act 3 combines Wagnerian ardour with some attractive diatonic dance music. There is a jubilant conclusion.

If the opera is not entirely convincing, failing as it does to create a consistent tone, there is a lot of fine music along the way. Some of the singing on this recording shows evidence of strain but this is, in general, a fine performance. The recording is also very good though the voices are rather too closely balanced. The orchestra is kept well in the picture, however. Recommended.

Dussek: Piano Concertos
Dussek: Piano Concertos
Offered by EliteDigital UK
Price: £17.95

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Two Worthwhile Concertos., 27 Jan 2013
This review is from: Dussek: Piano Concertos (Audio CD)
Jan-Ladislav Dussek (1760-1812) was a Bohemian composer and pianist who was highly regarded in his time. Haydn called him "the most honest, politest and most excellent man among all composers" though, admittedly, that says nothing about his music. In 1792, having fled Paris to avoid the Revolution, Dussek was living in London where he remained for eleven years. The Bb Piano Concerto, Op. 22 dates from this period.

It is in the Classical style. The first movement has a strong second subject and its opening tutti is very much to the point. A new theme is presented by the soloist and there is some attractive linking material. The development section is adventurous tonally but it is, as so often in concertos of this period, too diffuse melodically. The recapitulation is regular though the soloist's theme does not return. There is no cadenza.

The rather insubstantial slow movement is a simple ternary structure. It is the finale, though, which is the best movement. In the booklet, Staier says that, because all three movements are in the tonic key, he composed a short introduction to this movement to add some tonal variety. This is listed as coming at the beginning of Track 6 but it begins, presumably, after the slow movement's cadence. (Track 5: 4 mins 30 secs.) The finale has a catchy, if rather innocuous main theme and the episodes are well contrasted with it.

In 1799, Dussek's London-based publishing house went bankrupt and he fled to Hamburg. The G minor concerto Op. 49 dates from 1802. Although the booklet says that each of the movements in this concerto "represents a romantic world" the concerto is essentially Classical in style although it is true that the piano writing is more virtuosic than in the Bb concerto. If the music is darker and more passionate, that is largely a result of the use of the minor mode. As in the Bb concerto a theme is reserved for the soloist. The proper second subject, a march-like tune is attractive but the development section is even more thematically vacuous than is the one in the Bb concerto. After a regular recapitulation the movement ends with a bang. (This is not a metaphor!)

The slow movement is far more satisfying and enjoyable than the one in the Bb concerto. The middle section introduces entirely new music and builds up quite a head of steam before the main theme returns. There is a coda built on the idea from the middle section. However, it is again the finale which impresses. This movement, by some way the best music on the disc, is practically monothematic (certainly not a feature of Romantic music) and, for once, cogently argued.

The "Tableau "Marie Antoinette"" is an odd work for narrator and piano. It tells the story of Marie-Antoinette's imprisonment and execution... complete with glissando, of course, to represent the falling blade. It's fun to listen to once and, however limited your French is, you won't have trouble following the story.

Every composer has the right to be assessed on his own terms and Dussek's concertos are worth getting to know. However, don't listen to them until you know all of Mozart's piano concertos. They are amongst the greatest music ever written and, in terms of thematic memorability, concentration of incident and overall flair, completely outclass Dussek's worthy but relatively prosaic efforts. For a piano concerto by Dussek, I would recommend the one for two pianos (Op.63) before either of those on this disc.

These are "authentic" performances, Staier's fortepiano being accompanied by a period band. It would be impossible to fault either the playing or the recording.

Canzone Dei Ricordi/Concerto Piano
Canzone Dei Ricordi/Concerto Piano
Offered by EliteDigital UK
Price: £22.95

5.0 out of 5 stars A superb Brahmsian Concerto and some lovely songs., 27 Jan 2013
Giuseppe Martucci (1856-1909) was one of only two important late Romantic composers who did not write operas. (The other was Giovanni Sgambati.) The Second Piano Concerto dates from 1885 and was first performed in Naples on January 31 1886. Martucci was himself the soloist. The concerto enjoyed considerable international success and was conducted by, among others, Toscanini (who was astounded by Martucci's pianism) and Mahler. Indeed, Mahler conducted it at his last appearance on the podium at Carnegie Hall on February 21st 1911.

This is a splendid large-scale (43 1/2 mins) Brahmsian work which is well worth getting to know. Although the piano part is extremely difficult, this is decidedly not a display concerto. There is a sense of organic growth about this music which means that traditional sonata form divisions are blurred. The music is continuously evolving melodically. The orchestra heralds the first subject which is then stated by the soloist. After a switch to the relative major, the soloist is entrusted with the second theme at 2 mins 43 secs. It is a lovely extended melody, rather elusive at first. Eventually an impressive tutti arrives. At first it is built on the first theme, sometimes in an augmented form, but it gradually becomes more lyrical as the second theme comes to the fore. With the reentry of the soloist a chorale-like idea is introduced. Gradually, its relationship to the first theme become apparent. A lyrical treatment of the second subject also features. At 12 mins 11 secs, the recapitulation arrives, the material now redistributed between the soloist and the orchestra. The second subject is reintroduced at 14 mins 40 secs. Now follows a long and very Brahmsian cadenza. It explores much of the movement's material and almost functions as another development section. The orchestra enters with a lyrical version of the first theme but it is the chorale theme which brings the movement to it final climax.

The other movements are easier to grasp. The slow movement's main theme, stated by the soloist, is divided between the orchestra and the soloist. There is a lovely subsidiary idea, first heard on the cellos at 3 mins 15 secs. The central development section is a lengthy recitative for the piano punctuated by loud orchestral chords. Gradually the movement's opening material reestablishes itself, blossoming on the cellos at 8 mins 6 secs.

The finale is a sort of sonata rondo but it is very fluid in its approach both to structure and melody. The soloist enters at once with the main theme which is continually varied until the second theme, another chorale-like idea, arrives at 2 mins 4 secs. Again the tune is continually varied. The texture is stiffened by some contrapuntal writing. You won't have trouble following the rest of the movement. What may be termed the "recapitulation" begins at 5 mins 33 secs, the second theme returning at 6 mins 27 secs. There is a brief but very elaborate cadenza before this most impressive concerto comes to a crisp conclusion.

The "Canzone dei Ricordi" ("Songs of Memories") is a set of seven songs to texts by R. E. Pagliara. Brahms' influence is not apparent here. It seems as though, once he was writing for the voice, Martucci no longer denied his Italian roots though, harmonically, the music shows the influence of Wagner. The songs are quite lovely and are beautifully sung here. Muti conducts most sensitively and the recording captures Martucci's subtle orchestral effects unerringly. At a first hearing, the very Italianate melodic line of the second song ("Cantava'l ruscello la gaia canzone") will captivate you but the others are hardly less attractive. The final song returns to the music and words of the first song, thus bringing the cycle full circle.

Carlo Bruno is a superb soloist in the concerto and, indeed, all the performances on this disc are far more imaginative and sensitive than the only other ones I have heard (on ASV). I can give this disc a whole-hearted recommendation.

Georgy Catoire/Percy Sherwood: Piano Concertos
Georgy Catoire/Percy Sherwood: Piano Concertos
Price: £11.52

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Five stars for Sherwood's concerto but Catoire's is far less convincing., 27 Jan 2013
Percy Sherwood was born in Dresden in 1866 to an English father and a German mother. A pupil of Draeseke at the Royal Conservatory of Dresden, he became a lecturer there and then Professor of piano. He became well known in Germany as a pianist and composer in which sphere he was quite productive: there are five symphonies, six concertos and six string quartets, for example. At the outbreak of the First World War Sherwood moved to London. Although he had been well known in Germany, his German training and late Romantic aesthetic meant that it was impossible for him to develop his career in England and he eventually died in total obscurity in 1939.

The Second Piano Concerto dates from 1932-33 although it sounds much earlier. It is a fine work, well worth getting to know. Although very much in a late Romantic style, you will be struck throughout by the refinement and lightness of the orchestration. The brass in particular are reserved for key structural events. The piano part is virtuosic and intricate. The 14 1/2 minute first movement is built on a striking main theme, stated in octaves at the beginning, and a second theme which, though lyrical and memorable, doesn't quite blossom as you hope it will. Much of the ensuing music is built on the first subject. A triplet figure derived from it features prominently. The second theme is developed later. The recapitulation, beginning at 8 mins 19 secs, is essentially regular. A cadenza is built on the second subject exclusively. The movement ends with a final statement of the main theme.

The slow movement is built on three themes, the first stated at the beginning, the second by a clarinet at 2 mins 13 secs and the third, a rhythmically plain idea, by the piano at 2 mins 54 secs. The horn leads a return to the opening material and the music becomes more intense until the opening theme returns at 6 mins 6 secs. The third theme is then extensively developed and the movement ends by referring to the opening idea. Much of this movement creates a lovely mood but, ultimately, it is not quite strong enough melodically to be truly memorable.

The finale is much more striking melodically. Its opening highly rhythmic idea is catchy and the ensuing woodwind idea, though plain in itself, is easily assimilated. Then the music takes a rather surprising turn which, oddly, Lewis Foreman, in the notes which come with the disc, doesn't mention. Sherwood starts to treat his material contrapuntally and gradually reintroduces the second subject from the first movement. Eventually the first and second themes return and there is a lengthy and exciting coda which at one point (6 mins 15 secs) manages to combine the main themes of both the first movement and the finale. This fine and notably well written concerto ends in virtuoso fashion.

Georgy Catoire (1861-1926) was a Russian composer and pianist who was born and who died in Moscow. He came from a French business family. Encouraged by Tchaikovsky and Taneyev he eventually became Professor of Composition at the Moscow Conservatory where his most famous pupil was Kabalevsky. The Piano Concerto dates from 1909. It is a full-blooded Romantic concerto, less adventurous tonally and harmonically than Sherwood's concerto. The piano writing is also less adventurous; there is rather a lot of that general purpose rolling-arpeggio style accompaniment and far less emphasis on inner part-writing. The first movement is unusually structured. After a glamorous opening (rather in the manner of Rachmaninov's Fourth Piano Concerto) which introduces a theme which will return at the end of the concerto, the woodwind state a plain tune which is then subjected to variation treatment. The music is either lush and superficially attractive or scherzando-like but, largely because it lacks any rhythmic interest, it remains, I have to say, obstinately unmemorable... mostly not much more than stock-in-trade Romantic piano concerto gestures. Eventually the movement peters out.

The slow movement begins by referring to the concerto's opening idea. This is extended by the piano but again there is a lot of rather bland lyricism and not much real substance. After a cadenza for the piano, this movement also peters out.

The finale is built on a speeded up version of the concerto's opening theme. For many pages the piano decorates the orchestra's fragments of melody until, not unexpectedly, the concerto ends with a grandiose statement of its opening theme.

I have really tried hard with Catoire's concerto but I do feel it's essentially empty. If you have a weakness for Nino Rota's piano concertos you may enjoy it. Otherwise, I wouldn't bother. Don't miss Sherwood's concerto, though, and then you'll be able to form your own opinion of Catoire's. You may agree with Mr Brough about its quality.

Korngold/Schmidt: Works for Strings and Piano
Korngold/Schmidt: Works for Strings and Piano
Offered by crucialmusic
Price: £16.97

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Approachable Music Commissioned by Wittgenstein., 27 Jan 2013
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
Korngold's "Suite for Piano (Left Hand) Two Violins and 'Cello" is one of three works he wrote for Paul Wittgenstein, the left-handed pianist who lost his right arm during the First World War. It is a fine work, a little uncertain stylistically and sometimes self-consciously "modern" with its added-note dissonances but full of memorable invention. It is not a difficult listen and there is plenty to divert the ear.

The first movement ("Praeludium und Fugue") starts with an impressive piano solo. Once the strings enter and the main theme has been announced, however, there is no fugal exposition but instead a set of variations on the subject. The main idea is never far away and the music has the character of a passacaglia. Music from the "Praeludium" acts as a link between the different sections.

The second movement is a slow waltz, but one without a lilt while the third movement is labelled "Groteske". This is a clear ternary structure. The outer sections are largely built on a descending chromatic pattern which sometimes takes the form of a dance-like idea reminiscent of old Vienna. The trio section, led by the piano, is a fine tonal melody which again betrays Korngold's Viennese heritage in its rich string textures.

The fourth movement is a "lied", a simple tune for the piano with a discreet string accompaniment. A violin repeats the tune and extends it while the other strings enter and the piano assumes an accompanying role. It is a lovely movement, played with a wonderful blend of intensity and warmth here at a daringly slow pace.

The finale is a set of variations on a straightforward tonal tune. The music gradually loses its Brahmsian glow as its harmonic language becomes more chromatic. A particularly memorable (and again very tonal) variant of the main theme, first heard at 2 mins 20 secs, returns at 6 mins 31 secs before the work concludes in an unequivocal Bb major.

Franz Schmidt wrote no fewer than five works for Wittgenstein, including a concerto. The quintet recorded here is the first of three, the others replacing one of the violins with a clarinet. Although it is not the equal of the superb concerto, this quintet is a fine work well worth getting to know. It gets better as it goes on. The first movement is written in sonata form although structural divisions are not clear. The recapitulation begins at 5 mins 53 secs. The tonal second subject is very heavily indebted to Brahms and I did feel that the movement was not entirely successful as it lacks a consistent lyrical impulse; the Brahmsian music does not always sit happily in its more chromatic surroundings.

The slow movement is built on a rising and falling rhythmically plain tune. It is a lovely idea which you will pick up at once. There is a highly rhythmical central section before the return of the opening material. The music's progress is still easy to follow but now the piano decorates the melody with running passagework and sometimes subtly alters the rhythm.

The third movement is again indebted to Brahms. Its ideas are again easily assimilated. The contrapuntal interest in the contrasting faster music together with the imaginative way in which the main them is treated on its return make this an outstanding movement.

The rondo finale is in compound time and may remind you of the finale of the concerto. Again, Schmidt's mastery of counterpoint is apparent. There is some lovely subsidiary material to contrast with the skittish main theme.

These are superb, strongly projected performances, of course, and they have been beautifully recorded. There is, however, a small tuning error from Silverstein in the finale of Korngold's suite which I won't identify in the hope that you don't notice it and aren't worried by it. Don't let this put you off investigating a splendid disc, however.

Fra Diavolo
Fra Diavolo
Offered by dischiniccoli
Price: £38.91

4.0 out of 5 stars A Fine Performance of a Delightful Opera-Comique., 27 Jan 2013
This review is from: Fra Diavolo (Audio CD)
Although he was very highly regarded in his time, Auber is now largely unknown. His operas are now rarely performed. "Fra Diavolo", in particular, was probably the most successful French opera of its type before Offenbach. It is, of course, an "opera-comique": spoken dialogue is interpolated between the musical numbers. Premiered in 1830 it had notched up 875 performances by the end of the century. By the beginning of the new century, however, it was beginning to sound old-fashioned and was far less frequently performed.

"Fra Diavolo", whose plot was borrowed for a short film by Laurel and Hardy (playing Stanlio and Ollio!), tells the story of Zerline, the daughter of an innkeeper, who wishes to marry Lorenzo, a poor soldier. Fra Diavolo, a bandit, steals Zerline's dowry so that she now cannot afford to marry Lorenzo. Fra Diavolo is caught, Zerlina's dowry restored and she is free to marry her soldier.

The music of "Fra Diavolo" is the usual succession of arias, ensemble and chorus numbers. The best known number, extensively used in the film, is the couplets for Zerline and Diavolo "Voyez sur cette roche" (it returns at the end, of course) but many of the tunes are not, perhaps, the sort which stick in the mind. They are often rhythmically distinctive, however, and, as you listen again, you find that there is a lot more to enjoy than you remembered. "Fra Diavolo", then, is a good opera to return to.

The performance on these discs is a fine one and it has been notably well recorded. The fly in the ointment, for me at least, is the Diavolo of Nicolai Gedda. By 1983, when the recording was made, he was 58 and his vocal production was no longer as even as it had once been. At higher dynamic levels, he is inclined to force his voice and beauty of line is sacrificed. I didn't enjoy his unstylish and over-energetic rendition of the Act 3 "Air". However, the voice is always distinctive and the Act 2 "Barcarolle" goes well.

Don't let this reservation put you off getting to know a delightful opera. It's only in the "Air" that you may have serious reservations about Gedda's singing and even there you cannot fault his commitment.

Price: £32.07

3.0 out of 5 stars Not one of Massenet's best but worth hearing., 27 Jan 2013
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This review is from: Roma (Audio CD)
"Roma" was the twenty-second of Massenet's twenty-five operas and the last one whose premiere he attended. Three more operas were produced after his death. "Roma" was very well received but soon disappeared from the repertoire. It is well worth hearing but don't expect the wonderfully sustained lyricism of "Werther" or the jewelled sequence of arias and ensembles of "Manon". As befits its subject, "Roma" inhabits a much more austere sound world. I must agree with the writer of the booklet who suggests that "the music of "Roma" is better when we consider single episodes". What makes so many of Massenet's operas outstanding is the way in which they are through-composed so that the music between the set-pieces flows as naturally as the set-pieces themselves. The arias and ensembles generate the intervening music. This is the technique which Puccini learnt from Massenet, of course. "Roma" lacks that lyrical flow and, as a result, you may find your attention wandering during the less compelling episodes.

The story of "Roma" concerns a vestal virgin, Fausta, who falls in love with a soldier, Lentulus. The oracle has blamed a vestal virgin who has broken her vow for the recent defeat of the Romans by Hannibal at the Battle of Canne. The penalty is to suffer death by being buried alive. Fausta admits her guilt and, although Lentulus, with the help of Vestapor, a Gallic slave, organises an escape, Fausta decides to die for the sake of her honour and the good of Rome. Posthumia, Fausta's grandmother, stabs her to save her from a lingering death.

Eastern European and Russian voices are not suited to Massenet and the singing on this recording is not particularly stylish. Many of the voices are affected by vibrato which is either too wide or too tight. Svetlana Arginbaeva as Posthumia is particularly inappropriately cast. I thought the best of the women was Francesca Franzil as Junia, another vestal virgin. Her Act 2 aria "Le soleil se couchait" (Track 11) goes well and is one of the opera's highlights though its melody is not one of Massenet's best. Other highlights include the splendid full-scale overture (unusual in Massenet) and the orchestral introduction to Act 3 with its flute melody very reminiscent of the "Meditation" from "Thais". This tune returns later in the act as an accompaniment to Lentulus's somewhat inelegantly sung solo "Je vais la voir...Soir admirable, je te salue". In general, Act 3 contains the opera's best passages as it features most of the love music but Act 4 contains a fine solo for Fausta which develops into an ensemble and then a chorus, "Laisse-moi dans la tombe". (Track 13.)

"Roma" is not one of Massenet's best operas, then; there is a feeling of staleness about some of the music. However, it is not to be dismissed. There are many fine passages which you will want to hear again. To make its maximum effect "Roma" needs a more stylish performance than the one under review but you will probably have to wait a long time for something better to come along. The recording is a little boxy but otherwise good.

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