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Highly Reviewed Recordings

September 21 - October 4, 2011

GAUBERT, P.: Orchestral Music, Vol. 2 (Luxembourg Philharmonic, Soustrot)
(Timpani: 1C1175)

GAUBERT, P.: Orchestral Music, Vol. 2 (Luxembourg Philharmonic, Soustrot) Philippe Gaubert's little-known ballet Le Chevalier et la Damoiselle receives its world premiere recording.

Until recently, Philippe Gaubert was best remembered as a conductor and exceptional flutist active in France between the two World Wars. But he also composed some distinguished orchestral music which, thanks to the enterprising Paris-based Timpani label, has come as a welcome surprise to classical collectors who'd thought they had everything.

This world premiere recording of Gaubert's 1940 ballet Le Chevalier et la Damoiselle (The Knight and the Damsel), captures the last and reputedly finest of his symphonic creations. It's in the tradition of such late Romantic French ballet scores as Roussel's Bacchus et Ariane and Poulenc's Les animaux modèles.

In two acts, the story takes place during the Middle Ages, and concerns a beautiful princess under a spell that turns her into a doe each night. She can be freed from the magic only by meeting a man who will "make her know suffering." 

The score opens with a commanding six-note ostinato that recurs throughout the ballet and serves to unify it. The first dance, spiked with a dash of polytonality, introduces the princess in her daytime human form along with her three attendants. But as night falls, she joins a group of deer at the edge of the woods and suddenly transforms into a doe.

Beautiful scenes with lilting passages for solo flute and violin depict the doe-princess' encounters with a knight-errant, during which she changes back to human form. The act ends joyously in a stunning pas de deux as they fall in love, after which the attendants return and carry the princess off.

The princess pines for her lost knight in the mournful entr'acte that opens Act 2, and organizes a tournament in hopes of luring him back. Several colorful rustic sections follow, including a piquant oboe-spiced pastorale, a haughty, Renaissance-inflected peasant dance and one in a delicate Medieval style.

The ballet's conclusion is highlighted by three exciting jousting episodes, after which the princess and knight are reunited in an amorous waltz, followed by a brief reminder of her four-legged adventures. The work ends as the people honor the happy couple in a festive, high-stepping frolic.

Conductor Marc Soustrot's sensitive leadership of the Luxembourg Philharmonic gives us what will undoubtedly be the definitive recording of this rarity for some time to come.

Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (Reposted by NPR blog Deceptive Cadence)

Violin Recital: Pine, Rachel Barton - ALBENIZ, R.B. / CORDERO, R. / ESPEJO, C. / QUIROGA, M. / YSAYE, E. / GONZALEZ, L.J. (Capricho Latino)
(Cedille: CDR90000-124)

Violin Recital: Pine, Rachel Barton - ALBENIZ, R.B. / CORDERO, R. / ESPEJO, C. / QUIROGA, M. / YSAYE, E. / GONZALEZ, L.J. (Capricho Latino) Any album of solo instrumental music subjects itself to a higher degree of vulnerability, for the artist must stand alone on his/her performance for the duration of the CD. Rachel Barton Pine succeeds brilliantly on these pieces for the solo violin (and narrator, as with Ferdinand the Bull), most of which have a Latin flavor. Barton's assured, solid technique, and strong musicianship carry her through the whole album. The Prélude Ibérique is one such example, which is full of fire and passion, an absolute joy to hear. Her liquid, fluid, lyrical style (sometimes reminiscent of Perlman or Shaham) is evident in pieces such as Emigrantes Celtas, where one can clearly hear her playing very much into the string with the right hand, and sustaining confident vibrato in the left hand.

 In Terra!! the violin becomes almost two instruments, with each musical line conveying complex rhythms, but this does not seem to deter the violinist, who plays through it with great poise. Sonata No. 6 shows Barton's very assured, romantic side, which also features exciting accelerandi after a tango. Spanish guitar aficionados will certainly recognize Recuerdos and Asturias, though the arrangements of these pieces are perhaps a bit odd for the violin (certainly no fault of the artist). However, in the latter piece, Barton is slightly off tune here and there, and her confidence seems to develop through the piece after a slightly weak beginning. Similarly, in the Rapsodía Panameña, a long sustained note gets slightly off key, but one can overlook this small flaw as she is able to bring out the expression in this enjoyably dissonant piece. One can hear her appropriately aggressive bow attacks through the high-quality recording, which is not overly bright, but clean enough to hear her precise string crossings.

The Piazzolla is simply fabulous: she captures the percussive rhythms as well as the legato melody, and does it with such excellent style that one does not notice the high level of skill underlying this piece. The final work on the album, Ferdinand the Bull, adds a note of whimsy to this hardcore classical gem; the dialogue between violinist and Héctor Elizondo is done well, and perhaps makes this album more appealing to young listeners. Overall, this is an excellent album in terms of musicianship as well as repertoire chosen.


Piano Recital: Min, Klara - YUN, Isang / KANG, Sukhi / CHOE, Uzong / KIM, Chung-gil / PAGH-PAAN, Younghi (Ripples on Water - Piano Music from Korea)
(Naxos: 8.572406)

Piano Recital: Min, Klara - YUN, Isang / KANG, Sukhi / CHOE, Uzong / KIM, Chung-gil / PAGH-PAAN, Younghi (Ripples on Water - Piano Music from Korea) Quite often one thinks of classical or art music as originating in the West, but this album proves that there is indeed a vibrant culture of art music from Asia. South Korean pianist Klara Min showcases works from a few 20th century Korean composers. 

Younghi Pagh-Paan's Pa-mun (Ripples on Water) captures a sense of play and the motion of water. One hears slow ripples first, then faster droplets or faster ripples. Though there is emotion here, it is overall a quiet piece. Isang Yun's Fünf Stücke is a series of five miniature pieces that are atonal, or, rather, are not primarily about linear harmonic or melodic structure. Min makes each note count, and keeps with the character of each piece, playing the Allegro brightly and actively, and the Allegretto active and moving forward. Yun's Interludium A shows off Min's athletic playing, and she never seems to miss a note anywhere.

Perhaps the most interesting works on the album are by Uzong Chae. These Preludes have interesting chords and are slightly tonal. The Prelude No. 7 even briefly goes tonal, with an echo of Bach. Prelude No. 8 is also fairly tonal, with a hypnotic repeating pattern. Min clearly chooses which notes to emphasize, giving shape to these patterns, and this makes the piece engaging. Also hypnotic is the second movement of Go-Poong (Memory of Childhood) with its repeating motif with carefully placed notes sprinkled above. Min is able to bring mystery into this entire work, which is sometimes dark and menacing.

 If one is looking for Korean traditional or folk music, this album is not about that. Rather, it might be more accurate to say that this album is an example of Korean composers who have drawn upon Western, mid-20th century compositional techniques. So much of the music is universal; that is to say, it could have been composed anywhere in the world. Klara Min has done a worthy job of tackling challenging music by the leading composers of her homeland.


SHOSTAKOVICH, D.: Symphonies, Vol. 5 - Symphonies Nos. 1 and 3 (Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra, Petrenko)
(Naxos: 8.572396)

SHOSTAKOVICH, D.: Symphonies, Vol. 5 - Symphonies Nos. 1 and 3 (Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra, Petrenko) Gripping. Oh, dear Lord! Another series from Naxos, this one an ongoing integral set of the Shostakovich symphonies with Petrenko and Liverpool. They've already released numbers 1, 3, 5, and 8-11. How many Naxos series does this make? I'm currently plowing through the volumes of Igor Markevitch's complete orchestral work. I've reviewed the Szymanowski series, the Penderecki series, the Martinu series, the American Classics series, the American Opera series, the American Jewish Music series, the Bernstein series, the complete Ives songs, the American Wind Classics series, several recordings of classic Hollywood film scores, and I'm sure I've forgotten or even missed a few. Apart from all this, Naxos continues to issue a steady stream of one-offs. I doubt any other recording company comes close to Naxos's distribution of new work and suspect it's time to reassess who the "major" classical labels really are these days. I doubt it's EMI, Sony, or the Universal group, whose major assets lie in their back catalogues.

Early on, Naxos got stuck with the label of "cheap" and "second-rate." However true it may have been in the past, it doesn't apply now -- at least no more than it applies to most other labels you've heard of. These two accounts of early Shostakovich not only succeed in their own right, they stand among the very best ever.

The cover photo features a very young, sweetly nerdy Shostakovich holding a cat in his lap. It was taken two days before the premiere of his first symphony. Shostakovich began the work at 18 and completed it a year later, still a student. It outstrips not only most student work, but the work of quite a few mature composers. It announces a new voice in Modern music. Shostakovich may have extended his language as he got older, but its basic elements show up even here. What hit hardest are the complexity of its nevertheless memorable themes and the sophistication of the symphonic argument. Other striking features include unusual and effective orchestration, particularly the composer's fondness for solo trumpet. Most important, everything -- rhythm, harmony, counterpoint, melody, color -- seems in balance. Western conductors like Klemperer, Walter, and Toscanini quickly took up the work, and Milhaud and Berg became fans. Although only a fool tries to argue with a fact, it's still difficult to believe a kid wrote this. The work has kept its power all these years later.

The Symphony No. 3, like the Symphony No. 2, deals with Communist and Socialist history. These two symphonies, like the similarly "historical" Symphonies 11 and 12, have not fared as well as their brethren. Part of this may have to do with the ignorance in the West of the International Labor Movement. More importantly, critics have ignored Shostakovich's aesthetic basis in these works. They are, in some sense, programmatic scores, rather than vessels of classical form. Indeed, in the Third, Shostakovich deliberately tried to avoid classicism, not completely successfully, in that he aimed to write a symphony without themes -- that is, musical ideas that recur and through their repetition shape the symphonic argument. The structure can seem a "sprawl" -- a one-movement symphony in several sections, distinguished by rhythm and tempo. What one experiences, I think, is not chaos, but a fabric woven through with similar shapes, even though they don't rise to definite themes. Shostakovich has so mastered symphonic time (he's all of 23) that he can even think of taking this chance. Ironically, even the Soviet critics condemned it, in the wake of the scandal of Shostakovich's opera The Nose, on the grounds of "formalism," a charge without aesthetic meaning, almost always made to keep Soviet artists subservient to the State, and thus politically corrupt.

I must admit that for many years, "my" Shostakovich symphonies began with #4. I recognized the importance and the achievement of the First, but I didn't care for it, despite performances by Bernstein, Ancerl, Jansons, Rattle, and Ormandy. I had an RCA LP with Morton Gould of the Second and Third, which failed to convince me that either work merited more effort. Petrenko and Liverpool have turned me around on numbers 1 and 3. I haven't heard their other discs, but you can bet I will. I simply haven't heard such command over Shostakovich's musical narration. The sound is excellent. On the basis of this single disc, I believe we have what may become the great Shostakovich recorded symphonic cycle.


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