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Highly Reviewed Recordings

April 18 - May 1, 2012

RAUTAVAARA, E.: Modificata / Incantations / Towards the Horizon (Storgards)
(Ondine: ODE1178-2)

RAUTAVAARA, E.: Modificata / Incantations / Towards the Horizon (Storgards)

The evocative title reflects Rautavaara’s belief (to quote Korhonen) ‘that there is much in common between shamanism and composition: a shaman is a mediator between human beings and the hereafter, and a composer too…is more a mediator than a creator’. So one could regard each movement as a spell or incantation conjured between the listener and the otherworld. But whereas in Towards the Horizon there is a specifically personal viewpoint expressed (the composer’s own), in Incantations it is more generalised and with more sense of dialogue.

However one may interpret Rautavaara’s title – which, by the way, was selected late in the composition process – the music possesses a powerfully elemental undertow. Colin Currie, for whom the concerto was written and who premiered it in London in 2009, reprises that scintillating performance in a barnstorming account caught splendidly in Ondine’s superlative sound. John Storgårds and the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra give exemplary support in the big-boned textures of both concertos but also shine on their own in Modificata.

This is an immensely noteworthy issue, not as a potential epitaph for Rautavaara the concerto-composer but for the quality of the music.

By Guy Rickards
For the full review, go to

CASTELLANOS, E.: Santa Cruz de Pacairigua / El rio de las siete estrellas / Avilena Suite (Venezuela Symphony, J. Wagner)
(Naxos / Latin American Classics: 8.572681)

CASTELLANOS, E.: Santa Cruz de Pacairigua / El rio de las siete estrellas / Avilena Suite (Venezuela Symphony, J. Wagner) Composer Evencio Castellanos helped develop a national sound for classical music in Venezuela.  Except for two years of piano studies in New York City in the late 1940s, Venezuelan Evencio Castellanos was a homegrown musician. And based on this sampling of his symphonic output, he'd seem to be his country's leading twentieth century composer. Having the melodic flow of Heitor Villa-lobos, and the rhythmic urgency of Alberto Ginastera (two fellow South Americans), these brilliantly scored works are impressive.

The album begins with a pair of tone poems. The first, Santa Cruz de Pacairigua, from 1954, was occasioned by the construction of a church near Caracas. The boisterous percussion-laced beginning paints a festive portrait of a religious celebration. A winsome South American waltz follows, and the piece concludes in the same high spirits in which it began. The world of Ginastera's Panambi and Estancia is not far away.

El Rio de las Siete Estrellas (The River of the Seven Stars), written in 1946, takes inspiration from a poem about Venezuela's precolonial Indian population. The chief's alluring daughter is represented by the pristine, relaxed opening.

Several colorful animated episodes follow. One of them recalls Manuel de Falla's Ritual Fire Dance, and may possibly be related to a mythical volcano in the story. There's also a warlike segment commemorating the 1821 Battle of Carabobo, which led to Venezuela's independence. The tone poem jubilantly concludes by incorporating fragments of the Venezuelan national anthem.

The disc closes with the Suite Avilena, from 1947, a musical tribute to the Mount El Ávila area north of Caracas. In five scenes, Castellanos bases most of his melodies on Venezuelan popular songs, and calls for instruments such as the cuatro, a smaller version of the guitar, and Latin American maracas.

Highlights of the suite include a magical opening based on chants of Caracas flower merchants, which oddly anticipates Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells. The eerie, meditative "Nocturno" is all the more mysterious for some catchy cuatro and celesta ornamentation, while the two closing Christmas scenes borrow from Venezuelan carols. A big tune in the last one recalls Louis Moreau Gottschalk's Bamboula, making one wonder if both composers might have had the same folk song in mind.

Conductor Jan Wagner summons stunning performances from the Venezuelan Symphony Orchestra. His attention to rhythmic as well as dynamic detail in the two poems, and sensitive handling of the suite guarantee these luxuriant scores never become over-romanticized.

By Bob McQuiston, NPR Deceptive Cadence, Classical Lost and Found

VERDI, G.: Ballet Music from the Operas (Complete) (Bournemouth Symphony, Serebrier)
(Naxos: 8.572818-19)

VERDI, G.: Ballet Music from the Operas (Complete) (Bournemouth Symphony, Serebrier)

The only other serious competition in this repertoire, and it’s not as complete as this release (the Aida items are missing), is an old Philips Duo mostly conducted by the late Antonio de Almeida. Those are good performances, but they don’t outclass these, either interpretively or sonically. You might say that it doesn’t take much interpretive insight to conduct Italian ballet music, but ultimately the goal is always the same: to avoid boredom. This may be even harder in music whose purpose is largely decorative and expressively limited. It’s to Serebrier’s (and Verdi’s) credit that there isn’t a bar here that fails to entertain, or that doesn’t make an excellent case for believing that this music is of much higher quality than its reputation suggests.

The ballet from Aida is well known, of course, but that from Otello is a minor masterpiece in a strikingly similar vein. “The Four Seasons” ballet from I vespri siciliani is Verdi’s largest, lasting a solid half an hour, and it’s wonderfully performed here. It has moments that you might mistake for Delibes or Tchaikovsky. Don Carlos is also fully mature Verdi, while the ballet in Macbeth is pretty well known as it’s often included in modern performances of the opera (the witches’ waltz at the end is particularly fun). The two big “finds” for most listeners will be the extensive ballet music from Jérusalem (a.k.a. I lombardi), and the similarly large-scale (20 minutes) dance episodes from Il trovatore. This last item quotes the “gypsy” tunes from the opera’s first act, including the Anvil Chorus, and it’s really delightful. The sonics are clear and vivid, and with a playing time of nearly two hours, this set easily becomes the modern reference for this undervalued repertoire.

By David Hurwitz,

NIELSEN, C.: Symphony No. 1 / SIBELIUS, J.: Symphony No. 7 (Copenhagen Philharmonic, Kamu)
(Classico: CLASSCD115)

NIELSEN, C.: Symphony No. 1 / SIBELIUS, J.: Symphony No. 7 (Copenhagen Philharmonic, Kamu)

Okko Kamu leads a refreshingly vibrant account of Nielsen’s Symphony No. 1. The first movement surges with youthful vigor, aided by Kamu’s light touch–crisp orchestral articulation and clear ensemble textures. The Andante second movement plays with a rare sense of direction–Kamu has a clear idea how this music should go, and the Copenhagen Philharmonic plays beautifully, especially in the strings in the rhapsodic central section. The scherzo moves along breezily, with nicely burnished brass in the trio. Nielsen’s Finale, with its seemingly endless main theme, is a bit of a tough nut that seems to elude many conductors. Not so Kamu: his clear focus and bold impetus carry the music unerringly through to its imposing conclusion. A fine Nielsen First.

Kamu is better known for his Sibelius, and this Symphony No. 7 lives up to the conductor’s reputation. Again the performance abounds with energy and freshness. Free from the heaviness imposed by some interpreters, the introduction carries a heightened air of expectancy. Kamu’s reading points up the work’s relation to the preceding Sixth symphony and, in the later dramatic sections (here done with impressive power), the composer’s great tone poem Tapiola still to come. As before the orchestra plays handsomely throughout, and is captured in excellent sound. This disc might at first appear to be an odd coupling–turns out it’s a winner.

By Victor Carr –

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