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  Highly Reviewed Recordings

   November 17 - November 30, 2010

SCHOENFIELD, P.: Refractions / 6 British Folk Songs / Peccadilloes (Tocco, Hanani, Fiterstein, Schoenfield)
(Naxos / American Classics: 8.559380)

SCHOENFIELD, P.: Refractions / 6 British Folk Songs / Peccadilloes (Tocco, Hanani, Fiterstein, Schoenfield) It's surprising that there aren't more recordings by cellist Yehuda Hanani and his Close Encounters with Music series, based in Great Barrington, Mass. Their concerts always feature clever pairings of works from various eras with thoughtfully selected recent compositions and the occasional premiere.

Hanani and CEWM are the performers on a new Naxos disc of music by American composer Paul Schoenfield. Included in the lineup of three pieces is "Refractions," a trio for clarinet, cello and piano that Hanani and company commissioned and premiered in 2006. Like all of Schoenfield's music, it's loaded with gracious writing and lots of clever dancing passages. The melodic homages to Mozart's "Marriage of Figaro" seem especially well-hidden to my ears, but the references to klezmer are hard to miss.

The disc opens with a rather dry account of Six British Folk Songs for cello and piano but also features pianist James Tocco in the delightful solo suite "Peccadilloes." The title is Schoenfield chiding himself for some flagrant borrowing from Ravel, Gershwin, Joplin, Ives and who knows how many others. It's pure magic.

Joseph Dalton Special To The Times Union, November 9, 2010

DOVE, J.: Tobias and the Angel [Opera] (Abell)
(Chandos: CHAN10606)

DOVE, J.: Tobias and the Angel [Opera] (Abell) Short, single-act operas on religious themes — church operas, as they are often called — are something of a British specialty.  Continuing in the tradition of works like Benjamin Britten's Noye's Fludde, English composer Jonathan Dove gives us Tobias and the Angel. It's based on a story from the Book of Tobit contained in the Apocrypha.

With mystical as well as Jewish folk elements in the scenario, Dove proves he’s one of today's most inventive opera composers. It's apparent in the scoring alone, which calls for eight soloists, a male quartet, three substantial choruses, and an iridescent chamber ensemble with accordion and organ.

The story opens in Nineve (Nineveh), where Tobias’ father Tobit sings an aria bemoaning the oppression and murder of Jews by the Assyrians.  Musically, there's a catchy nine-note riff that sounds like Bartok — a distant cousin, perhaps, of the opening theme from the finale of his Concerto for Orchestra.

An arresting market place scene follows, with a wild song and dance set to a klezmer band. And from this point the plot thickens, but other highpoints include a terrific morning wake-up chorus of sparrows, sung by children, and an organ-reinforced aria for a resident demon.

There’s also an enchanting pastoral mountain scene with some standout choruses. These include one for the trees, a mystical echo number for men, another for women representing a river, and those children again chanting the part of a gigantic magic fish to the exotic strains of accordion, harp and organ.

The opera ends with more of those infectious sparrows, snatches of the mountain choruses, and a heavenly ensemble number followed by a final orchestral reference to that opening Bartok-like motif.

Based on a highly successful 2006 stage production, this premiere recording, conducted by David Charles Abell, is superbly realized. Each of the soloists delivers beautifully sung characterizations of their respective roles. The choruses and orchestral ensemble are equally impressive.

Let's hope Jonathan Dove continues his creative adventures in the world of opera.

Bob McQuiston, npr music, October 6, 2010

PANUFNIK, A.: Symphonic Music, Vol. 1 (Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra Warsaw, Borowicz)
(CPO: 777497-2)

PANUFNIK, A.: Symphonic Music, Vol. 1 (Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra Warsaw, Borowicz) This is good music, though even in Panufnik's early works there is a certain sameness of procedure: the slow buildup to a climax that breaks off suddenly, often repeated; the ostinato rhythms, often assisted by the percussion; the predominantly slow tempos. When skillfully deployed, as here, the result is quite characterful and worth getting to know. The Nocturne is particularly beautiful; Harmony is more acerbic but expertly proportioned, and the two overtures have some really exciting moments. Most of this music has been recorded before, but these performances jump straight to the top of a very small heap. If you only know the Heroic Overture from Jascha Horenstein's typically clunky version, you'll be amazed at what the music really sounds like in the hands of a conductor up to the task. In short, Lukasz Borowicz is terrific; so is the orchestra, and the engineering. This is a series well worth watching--and hearing.

David Hurwitz,, September 22,2010

SCHUMANN, R.: Symphonies Nos. 2 and 3, "Rhenish" (South West German Radio Symphony, Gielen)
(Haenssler Classic: CD93.259)

SCHUMANN, R.: Symphonies Nos. 2 and 3, There are lots of wonderful Schumann symphony recordings out there. The reference recordings above are some of the classics, but it's easy to imagine more recent versions by David Zinman or Daniel Barenboim added to the list. This newcomer certainly belongs among the best. Michael Gielen has a real point of view in this music, one that arises naturally out of Schumann's expressive message. Textures are light, never heavy--not quite so much as in Zinman's performances, but always enlivened by careful attention to rhythm. This is particularly evident in the finale of the Second symphony and in the first movement of the Third, where characterful articulation in the strings brings the music to life. It allows Gielen to play the Adagio of the Second slowly, but at a tempo that never drags.

Dynamics receive equally distinctive treatment. Consider the finale of the "Rhenish"--a touch of extra softness at the very start permits the main theme to erupt with even greater joy than usual. Gielen exploits every opportunity Schumann offers to create touches of color in the woodwind section (the scherzo of the Second), and where the orchestration turns to mud (first movement of the "Rhenish") Gielen isn't afraid to adjust it accordingly. But it's all done with real taste and understanding. The horn call toward the end of the same movement starts with stopped tones and continues piano--often it's blasted out as loudly as possible. The result is unfailingly poetic even if the Urtext score has an unvarying forte here. Great sound too. A wonderful disc.

David Hurwitz,, September 28, 2010

BRUCKNER, A.: Symphony No. 8 (Thielemann) (Staatskapelle Dresden Edition, Vol. 31)
(Profil / Edition Staatskapelle Dresden: PH10031)

BRUCKNER, A.: Symphony No. 8 (Thielemann) (Staatskapelle Dresden Edition, Vol. 31)

The Staatskapelle Dresden certainly hasn't lost its touch in Bruckner, and happily Christian Thielemann also does his best work in this live performance. He paces all four movements just about perfectly, with enough freedom of pulse (especially in the finale) to keep the rhythms from turning monotonous. The first movement has wonderfully powerful climaxes and the scherzo plenty of joyous energy (save for a couple of unnecessary diminuendo/crescendos at the end of sections).

The adagio is very beautiful, with superb work from the strings, horns, and Wagner tubas. However, both here and in the finale (the coda especially) the trumpets could penetrate a bit more powerfully when they need to ride over the entire orchestra. This may be a function of the recording, which is very natural but perhaps just a touch distant. Still, as a live production it really does convey the thrill of having been there in person. There are many fine versions of this symphony currently available, but you won't be sorry if you add this one to your collection as well.

David Hurwitz,

Cello Recital: Johnston, Guy - BRIDGE, F. / BRITTEN, B. / TURNAGE, M.-A. (Milo)
(Orchid Classics: ORC100010)

Cello Recital: Johnston, Guy - BRIDGE, F. / BRITTEN, B. / TURNAGE, M.-A. (Milo) A WEB of musical connections among several generations of teachers, pupils and friends inspired this disc of works by three British composers, vividly interpreted by two other Britons, the cellist Guy Johnston and the pianist Kathryn Stott.

Benjamin Britten was often inspired to write for a particular musician, like the tenor Peter Pears. The great cellist Mstislav Rostropovich was the beneficiary of Britten’s Sonata in C for cello and piano, given a vigorous performance here. Ms. Stott and Mr. Johnston play with witty panache in the pizzicato-driven second movement and with soulful intensity in the somber third movement, which displays Mr. Johnston’s rich tone to fine effect. Rostropovich described the fifth and final movement as “irresponsible and tempestuous.”

Mr. Johnston’s burnished and varied sound, aptly complemented by Ms. Stott’s sensitive playing, is also lovely in the gentle “Spring Song” and “Mélodie” by Frank Bridge, a friend and mentor of Britten’s, who championed his works. Britten described Bridge’s early style, illustrated by these two selections, as “Brahms happily tempered with Fauré.”

Bridge, who shared Britten’s pacifism, was profoundly affected by World War I. His melodic idiom veered toward a grittier aesthetic during the war, revealed in the two-movement Sonata in D minor for cello and piano, composed from 1913 to 1917. A restless cello line soars over the agitated piano part in the opening movement. Mournful musings in the piano at the beginning of the second movement reflect Bridge’s despair over the war.

While writing this unjustly neglected sonata, Bridge suffered from insomnia and wandered around London in the early hours of the morning. A gripping performance by Mr. Johnston and Ms. Stott gives full depth to the work’s introspective, angst-ridden and melancholy moods.

The disc also includes “Sleep On,” three lullabies for cello and piano by Mark-Anthony Turnage, who has said that they were influenced by Britten’s Solo Cello Suites Nos. 1 and 2. There is nothing soporific about these vividly textured lullabies, particularly the probing “Refrain.”

Last on the disc is Mr. Turnage’s “Milo,” a lullaby named after his son. Mr. Johnston, Milo’s godfather, performed the gentle piece at the child’s christening in 2009.

Vivien Schweitzer,, October 29, 2010

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