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Highly Reviewed Recordings

March 21 - April 3, 2012



UNITED STATES ARMY FIELD BAND (JAZZ AMBASSADORS): Legacy of Mary Lou Williams (The)
(Altissimo: 75442262102)


UNITED STATES ARMY FIELD BAND (JAZZ AMBASSADORS): Legacy of Mary Lou Williams (The) Mary Lou Williams was one of those musicians who overcame a variety of impediments in her early life to become one of America’s seminal composers and arrangers’. This disc reprises many her well-known compositions which are done with style and verve designed to reveal the meaning the composer intended.

While the song list is not necessarily in chronological order, it does lay out her writing and arranging starting with her earliest forays in the late 20s and early 30s. “Roll ‘Em”, “Messa Stomp” and “Walkin’ and Swinging” are from that period and the band delivers accordingly in a boogie-woogie style with the rhythm section supporting the melodies with a typical 30s “chugga chugga” beat. Part of the challenge facing the Jazz Ambassadors is that they do not have a readily identifiable sound.  But there are some first rate soloists such as pianist SFC Tim Young, who is clearly at the forefront on all three noted tunes.

“Scorpio” forms part of Williams well-known “Zodiac Suite” which foreshadowed some of her progressive musical ideas and here features guest artist Geri Allen on piano. “Blue Skies” was originally arranged for the Duke Ellington Orchestra in 1943 and this take showcases the lead trumpet of SFC Paul Stevens. In 1949 Williams penned the somewhat facetious “In The Land of Oo Bla Dee” for the Dizzy Gillespie Orchestra and on this rendition guest singer Andy Bey does the honors. Although this aggregation may not call themselves professional musicians, they clearly are up to dealing with demanding material with which they imbue energy and life. Listen to the tight harmonies on “Chunka Lunka” and the melodic line contained on “Tisherome”. The band continues to deliver in the same swinging fashion on the remainder of the disc with some especially interesting solo breaks by SFC Andrew Layton soprano sax on “Rosa Mae” and SFC Pat Shook clarinet on “Miss D.D.”.

This session is a continuation of a number of legacy outings that this group has done for the likes Hank Levy, Sammy Nestico, Stan Kenton and Benny Carter. This band can really play and the disc is deserving of support.

Pierre Giroux, Audiophile Audition




BLOCH, E.: Hiver-Printemps / Proclamation / Poems of Autumn / Suite (Koch)
(Capriccio: C67076)


BLOCH, E.: Hiver-Printemps / Proclamation / Poems of Autumn / Suite (Koch)

Ernest Bloch's orchestral music is pretty wonderful, and this disc shows off his range with particular success. True, the Poèmes are largely slow and droopy, if very beautiful, but the other works are wholly satisfying. The Suite for Viola and Orchestra, in particular, is shockingly neglected. It's got to be one of the greatest works in the repertoire, full of gorgeous color and exotic instrumentation. Bloch, of course, is known primarily for his "Jewish" works, none of which is offered here, but the finale of the Suite may surprise you with its overtly Chinese flavor. Of course, that's Jewish too. My late grandmother, who made it to the ripe old age of 103, used to say "every room needs a touch of Chinese." That's proof enough for me of the affinity between the two cultures.

The performances here are uniformly excellent. Mahler's Kindertotenlieder may seem chipper next to the Poèmes, but mezzo-soprano Sophie Koch sings them beautifully, while violist Tabea Zimmermann plays the Suite as well as anyone has. Steven Sloane leads the orchestra with confidence and conviction, and the engineering is first rate. So if you want to explore Bloch beyond the "Jewish" works, this disc is an excellent place to start.

David Hurwitz, ClassicsToday.com




SCHWANTNER, J.: Percussion Concerto / Morning's Embrace / Chasing Light… (Lamb, Nashville Symphony, Guerrero)
(Naxos / American Classics: 8.559678)


SCHWANTNER, J.: Percussion Concerto / Morning's Embrace / Chasing Light… (Lamb, Nashville Symphony, Guerrero)

I saw New York Philharmonic percussionist Chris Lamb reveal Joseph Schwantner's Percussion Concerto at its premiere performance back in the 1990s. Lamb is an astounding artist, and he plays the living daylights out of the piece. I felt then, and still believe (despite being a percussionist, sort of) that the concept of a percussion concerto is all but impossible to pull off musically, and Schwantner, who really knows how to write for percussion instruments, comes as close as anyone ever has to succeeding. It's a fun work, full of color and, obviously, rhythm. Whether it has the necessary staying power to reward repetition is up to you.

The other two works here are tone poems that are based, like so much of Schwantner's work, on images of light and nature. Chasing Light... is a "Ford Made in America" commission, a remarkable project that features the participation of dozens of orchestras and guarantees the work not just a multitude of performances all over the country (remarkable for new music), but also inevitably a Grammy since just about everyone involved is a NARAS member who will vote for the recording. In fact, this disc snagged a trophy for Chris Lamb's "Best Instrumental Solo" in the Classical division. It may be a racket (what industry award isn't?), but you can't help but feel good for the support of contemporary music that this program encourages.

Anyway, the music is colorful, shimmering, occasionally melodic, and quite accessible. Schwantner is by any standard a very accomplished composer. He balances thematic and purely textural elements with a keen sense of timing, and both here and in Morning's Embrace he creates confidently articulated musical shapes on a large scale, filling them with arresting ideas. The performances by the Nashville Symphony under Giancarlo Guerrero are as brilliant and exuberant as the music itself, and are very well recorded. Naxos, which happens to be located in Nashville, has a lot to be proud of with this one.

David Hurwitz, ClassicsToday.com




WEBER, C.M. von: Clarinet Concertos Nos. 1 and 2 / Clarinet Concertino / Horn Concertino (M. Collins, Stirling, City of London Sinfonia)
(Chandos: CHAN10702)


WEBER, C.M. von: Clarinet Concertos Nos. 1 and 2 / Clarinet Concertino / Horn Concertino (M. Collins, Stirling, City of London Sinfonia) Although the big draws here are the two clarinet concertos, British clarinetist Michael Collins begins the program with the little Concertino for Clarinet and Orchestra, Op. 26, J 109, which German pianist, conductor, and composer Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826) wrote in 1811. It's a brief but varied piece of music, starting out rather darkly and then opening up to an agreeably light and lyrical set of melodies. Collins has a good time with its differing moods and gets a chance to demonstrate his virtuosity early on. The piece makes a nice curtain raiser.

Next, we get Weber's Concerto No. 1 for Clarinet and Orchestra, Op. 73, J 114, also from 1811. Of the two clarinet concertos Weber wrote that year, this one is the more dramatic (or melodramatic, depending on your point of view). Collins in a booklet note calls it "operatic." Whatever the case, it is decidedly heavy, at least until the clarinet enters and lifts one's spirits. Collins provides a sparkling touch, his clarinet sounding both rich and refined, the City of London Sinfonia lending a splendidly intimate, small-scale support. The second-movement Adagio is especially lovely, and the finale bubbles over with a zippy enthusiasm.

After that, we get a change-up: the Concertino for Horn and Orchestra, Op. 45, J 188, with Stephen Stirling, horn. Weber was only nineteen when he wrote it, a remarkable accomplishment, even if he did revise it extensively about nine years later. Stirling offers meltingly mellifluent sounds and an equally honeyed interpretation through the four-movement piece.

The program ends with what is surely one of Weber's most-popular works, the Concerto No. 2 for Clarinet and Orchestra, Op. 74, J 118. Like most of the world, I love this music, so it's hard for any clarinetist to go wrong. Collins doesn't disappoint. In fact, he is quite dazzling from the moment he enters. A tone of mystery and grief pervades the second-movement Andante, to which Collins adds a note of melancholy. Then the whole show closes in a sparkling display of pyrotechnic fireworks from Weber, Collins, and the orchestra. It's all scintillating and delightful, and while I may have other favorite recordings of both concertos, this new one from Collins and company must stand serious consideration.

Chandos recorded the album at St. Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London, in April of 2011. They obtained a big, well-integrated sound, the clarinet never too close or too distant, with the orchestra realistically spread out behind. The sonics are smooth and slightly warm, making for easy, comfortable listening, if not always allowing for ultimate transparency or dynamic contrasts. There is good stage depth, too, and a pleasantly resonant air further contributing to the illusion of hearing the music in a mildly reverberant concert hall.

JJP, Classical Candor









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