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  Critics' Picks

BACH, J.S.: Stokowski Transcriptions, Vol. 2 (Stokowski) (1929-1950)
(Naxos Historical / Great Conductors: 8.112019)

BACH, J.S.: Stokowski Transcriptions, Vol. 2 (Stokowski) (1929-1950)

Producer and Audio Restoration Engineer Mark Obert-Thorn here conjures ten Bach performances by Leopold Stokowski (1882–1977), inscribed 1929 (Shepherds’ Music) to 1950 (Suite in B Minor) that effectively fix Bach in the Romantic tradition. The rare Suite No. 2 under Stokowski—recorded at Manhattan Center 12–14 September 1950)—had a brief life on RCA LP (LM 1176), but has not seen a place in the catalogue for over 45 years. The tempos prove rather leisurely, especially in the Rondeau and Sarabande—the latter’s receiving the full Stokowski treatment, given stellar presences in “His Symphony Orchestra,” like Bernard Greenhouse, Leonard Rose, Robert Bloom, and Oscar Shumsky—although the Bourree and Polonaise respond with firm resolve. Julius Baker, of course, is the soul of musical discretion and light, sweet tone. The final Badinerie flutters and sails with light gossamer wings.

Two mellow slowly realized vocal  pieces follow—the familiar Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring and Sheep May Safely Graze; then the Sinfonia from the Christmas Oratorio. Each bears the imprimatur of the “Stokowski Sound”, lush and dripping with sincerity.  The Prelude in E (20 July 1941 in Hollywood) proves a virtuoso toccata for the fine body of strings Stokowski assembled for the All-American Youth Orchestra, 1950–1941. With the Air in D from the Orchestral Suite No. 3 (15 January 1936), we enter the sacred precincts of the Philadelphia Orchestra (from 78 rpm M 401) and its immaculate sonorities. The broad mysticism Stokowski achieves—via some impressive homogeneous portato—in the Air on the G String rivals the Furtwaengler account in Berlin. The independent singing lines of the Fugue from BWV 542 (7 April 1934) intertwine with silken authority, especially in the ambient woodwinds and strings; but the entrance of deep pedal from the Philadelphia celli and basses is a veritable force of nature. Deep crimson hues mark Mein Jesu! Was fur Seelenweh, somber and devotional in each note.

The remarkable aria Es ist vollbracht from the St. John Passion (8 December 1940) seems to point to the slow movement from Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony for spiritual intensity; and given the recording’s proximity to America’s entry into WW II, it carries a valediction for an era. Despite a brief interlude of ascension and triumph, the sensibility of mourning prevails in weeping tones. That same spirit of solemn veneration—almost a devout obsessiveness—permeates the exalted chorale, “Jesus Christus Gottes Sohn” (5 April 1937) from Cantata No. 4, again attuned to Stokowski’s elegance sense of terraced dynamics that his Philadelphia Orchestra can realize like few ensembles in the history orchestral discipline.

Gary Lemco, Audiophile Audition, September 2009

GE, Gan-Ru: String Quartets No. 1, "Fu", No. 4, "Angel Suite" and No. 5, "Fall of Baghdad" (ModernWorks)
(Naxos / Chinese Classics: 8.570603)

GE, Gan-Ru: String Quartets No. 1, These three string quartets are tough but rewarding. The First and Fourth are stylistically reminiscent of works in the same genre by Ligeti, Gubaidulina, and Gloria Coates. The Fifth is, in the composer’s words, both a “tribute to Crumb” and a record of “musical thoughts provoked by the [Iraq] war.” In this last work, Ge calls for extended playing techniques similar to those used by George Crumb in Black Angels. (Crumb’s work was inspired by the war in Vietnam, of course.) It’s not at all pleasant to hear, but that’s the point, I imagine, and one appreciates both Ge’s passion for the subject and his musical imagination. The music is shocking, but not self-indulgent. The movement titles—“Abyss,” “Music from Heaven,” and “Desolation”—should give listeners an idea of what to expect.

The “Fu” of the String Quartet No. 1 is a literary genre in which prose and poetry are combined and ornate calligraphy is valued. In this concise quartet (11:30 here), Ge apparently has tried to depict this genre through music. “Angel Suite” is based on his interest in Christianity. The four movements are “Cherub,” “Gnomes,” “Prayer,” and “Angel’s March,” and I’ll eat my Fanfare collection if the latter doesn’t sound like it was co-composed by Bernard Herrmann!

I don’t want to make extravagant claims for Ge’s music. It is daring for a Chinese composer, but not so daring for works composed between 1983 and 2007. It is well written, though—and emotionally, it puts one through the wringer. Also, in its creativity and imagination, it is far preferable to some of the Chinese alternatives in the “pretty music suitable for accompanying travelogues and nature scenes” genre.  If you like any of the composers already mentioned in this review, Ge Gan-Ru’s string quartets are worth checking out.

ModernWorks is a contemporary music ensemble, and as far as I can tell, the four musicians who participate here (Airi Yoshioka, Mayuki Fukuhara, violins; Veronica Salas, viola; Madeleine Shapiro, cello) present Ge’s music faithfully and passionately. The engineering is fine, and the booklet notes are in both English and (I think) Mandarin Chinese.

Raymond Tuttle, Fanfare, December 2009

MOZART, W.A.: Masonic Music (Complete) (Heo Young-Hoon, Kassel Spohr Chamber Orchestra, Paternostro)
(Naxos: 8.570897)

MOZART, W.A.: Masonic Music (Complete) (Heo Young-Hoon, Kassel Spohr Chamber Orchestra, Paternostro) This album is not a collection of performances from the Naxos catalog, but a freshly recorded survey of the music Mozart wrote for the Masonic organizations of which he was part in Vienna, much of it of fascinating personal significance. The musicians seem to be mostly associated with performing organizations in the German city of Kassel; Korean-born tenor Young-Hoon Heo is a company member of the Kassel Stadttheater. Still, pulling together the collection of vocals, orchestral musicians, and wind chamber players heard here is a noteworthy accomplishment. And, although all of these pieces have been recorded elsewhere, several are quite rare, and it’s extremely instructive to hear them all together. Mozart inherited his interest in Freemasonry from his father and stuck with it through periods in which it was banned; during the last part of his life the sect benefited from the positive attitude of Emperor Joseph II, the dedicatee of a couple of the little choral pieces here. It would be interesting to know the background of the main performers and of annotator Heinz Sichrovsky, for there is at least one unusual addition to Mozart’s Masonic canon here: the Adagio and Fugue in C minor, K. 546, played by an orchestra, is ruled in because its seemingly ordinary main theme “is based on an anapestic Masonic signal.” Most of the music, however, was clearly written for specific uses in Masonic ceremony; one the Lied zur Gesellenreise, K. 468, was intended for Mozart’s own promotion to the rank of Entered Apprentice in 1785. The music consists of choruses, small wind pieces, pieces for a small orchestra, among them the famed Mauerische Trauermusik, K. 477 (Masonic Funeral Music), and little dramatic works, notably Eine kleine Freimaurer-Kantate: Laut verkünde unsre Freude, K. 623 (A Little Masonic Cantata: Loudly We Proclaim Our Joy), conducted by Mozart himself at his lodge three weeks before his death. Its text is by Mozart’s friend Emanuel Schikaneder, author of the libretto to The Magic Flute, and one thing the listener is apt to take away from this recording is a new appreciation for just how Masonic that opera is. The male choruses, otherwise not much found in Mozart’s output, are beautifully wrought and seem to look forward to Schubert’s pieces of this type. An essential item for the Perfect Mozartian, never less than adequately performed; Heo’s voice is of just the right dimensions for this music. Notes are in English only, texts in German only, with English translations available on a Naxos webpage.

James Manheim,, September 2009

LANGGAARD, R.: Choral Music (Rose Garden Songs) (Ars Nova Copenhagen, Veto)
(Dacapo: 6.220561)

LANGGAARD, R.: Choral Music (Rose Garden Songs) (Ars Nova Copenhagen, Veto)

His choral work is melodic and gorgeously conceived, always keeping the words in focus and not cluttering up the melody with harmonies that are too obtrusive, though his harmonies can indeed be complex, some of them even reminding me of English composer Herbert Howells. The first works on this disc are my favorite here, the lovely “Alluring Sounds”, “The Milkmaid”, and “The Harvest Bird”, followed by the namesake of the album, Rose Garden Songs, perhaps distinguished by its use of timbre and harmony as opposed to melody. Langgaard refuses to be pigeonholed, and offers us fresh takes in each work according to the muse he felt based on his texts.

Even the large number of motets and hymn melodies given here express a symbolism and romantic ethos that inspired a reactionary element in Danish music, our composer not being associated with this in any way. He steadfastly rejected the notion of enhanced use of Reformation melodies and a jettisoning of the romantic spirit. As a result, these wonderful pieces are heard through the spirit of the 19th century, unapologetically manipulated for maximum emotion effect.

This is an SACD version of a 1997 release, and welcome it is, the enhanced surround in no way sounding like a beefed-up artificial manipulation. The Ars nova Copenhagen performs this music with evident affection, and if your choral collection needs some refreshing, you’ve found a perfect starting place.

Steven Ritter, Audiophile Audition, November 2009

SCHNITTKE, A.: Piano Concerto / Concerto for Piano and String Orchestra / Concerto for Piano 4-hands and Chamber Orchestra (Kupiec, Strobel)
(Phoenix Edition: Phoenix103)

SCHNITTKE, A.: Piano Concerto / Concerto for Piano and String Orchestra / Concerto for Piano 4-hands and Chamber Orchestra (Kupiec, Strobel) The Phoenix is rising. Phoenix Edition is new to North American distribution and the initial offering of releases has been impressive. In modern music, a disc of the piano concertos of the late Alfred Schnittke can also be highly recommended. It features pianist Ewa Kupiec with keyboard support from Maria Lettburg and the RSO Berlin under Frank Strobel. Phoenix Edition 103 is a Hybrid SACD. Schnittke’s music provides a sharp contrast to the eclectic style of Henze but is no less worthy in these exciting performances.

Stephen Habington, Classical Music Sentinel, October 2009

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