International Treasures

Such has been the abundance of recent classical music releases that I was not able to get past the late 19th century in last month’s review of the fall harvest. Let me try to pick up the threads. We will see how far into the 20th century we can get (don’t be alarmed; it’s wonderful music). But first: a travel report, and then some backtracking.
Luckily, I was out of the country on September 28 when Deal Hudson declared me “a national treasure” on the Inside Blog. I like to think that, in my absence, I avoided the mobs that must have congregated outside my house. My wife did not need to call the police for crowd control, but she might have considered recommending a psychiatrist for our overly generous friend. In any case, Deal tempered his enthusiasm for my music criticism by pointing to my lack of appreciation for the works of Gustav Mahler.
Ironically, that very evening I was in Ljubljana, Slovenia, listening to the Mahler Fifth Symphony, with tears running down my face during the sublime Adagietto. A young Slovenian friend had insisted that I hear the Slovenian Philharmonic — under its Armenian-American conductor, George Pehlivanian, of whom I had never heard — play the Prokofiev Second Violin Concerto and the Mahler Fifth. Nor had I heard of Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos, but now I will never forget him. He not only played the Prokofiev superbly, but he returned to perform the Andante from Bach’s Sonata No. 2 for Solo Violin as an encore.
Quite simply, it was one of the most beautiful and spiritually moving performances of Bach that I have ever heard.  The gorgeous tone of Kavakos’s Stradivarius was laid at the feet of Bach’s sublime ruminations.  I immediately thought that someone should arrest this artist and make him record all the Bach Sonatas and Partitas. An Amazon search revealed that he has in fact recorded the First Sonata and Partita on the ECM label, along with some Stravinsky. I might have tried the instant MP3 download, but my computer speakers were not functioning. I am going to get this CD.
On to Mahler: Maestro Pehlivanian demonstrated that Slovenia has not only adopted the Euro, but it can also match the high musical standards of the finest orchestras in the EU. The Mahler performance was stunningly good. Mahler famously insisted that the symphony must include the whole world. Well, the world is a bit of a mess, and some of it boring at that. Pace, Deal, that is why I find some of Mahler tries my patience. However, even I surrender under the spell of this kind of music-making. My Slovenian friend told me that audiences in Ljubljana do not give standing ovations, but they were on their feet that night.
A quick London stopover allowed for no further concerts, but did include a meeting with the finest British music critic and the founder of the Toccata Classics label, Martin Anderson. Not only is Martin good company, but he is always in good company. This time I met Simon Wynberg, the artistic director of ARC Ensemble at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto.{mospagebreak}
The site of our assignation was that temple to wine, the Cork and Bottle, off Leicester Square, where Martin frequently holds forth. I walked by its entrance four times before I finally saw the narrow door leading to its subterranean location, which was imbued with a demimonde ambience by wall decorations with faded postcard photos of Victorian-era prostitutes. (Oh, for the days when that defined pornography!) Wynberg is able to direct the fine musicians on the faculty at the Royal Conservatory to perform and record items of interest. As Martin said, Simon is inside the candy store. Simon handed me the first product of his collaboration with RCA/Sony, some chamber music and songs of Mieczyslaw Weinberg, the great Polish composer. Titled On the Threshold of Hope, the CD (82876-87769-2) contains marvelous performances of Weinberg’s early Piano Quintet, the Sonata for Clarinet and Piano, and Jewish Songs after Shmuel Halkin. Anyone faintly interested in Shostakovich, Weinberg’s mentor in the U.S.S.R., needs to hear this music, which is in the same language and league.
More treasures were laid out on the tale by Martin, whose Toccata Classics is celebrating the milestone of having reached its first 25 releases. This is a great achievement for a label that was launched only in the fall of 2005. So far, Martin’s catalogue has proven that his strongest point is his inconsistency. The jumble of composers and periods covered makes no thematic sense, other than within his adopted motto of “forgotten music by great composers and great music by forgotten composers.” Go visit the Tocatta Web site to see what I mean.
Now for the backtracking. I was thrilled to get the Toccata release (TOCC 0042) of the Piano Concerto of Sergei Taneyev, the Russian composer whose Piano Quintet I raved about last month. The two movements of the Concerto, all that Taneyev completed, are the work of a 19-year-old who was discouraged by criticism from Anton Rubinstein and Rimsky-Korsakov. It is nonetheless worth hearing for its display of influences and its signs of early promise, more so than the new Chandos release of Taneyev’s Symphonies Nos. 1 and 3. Taneyev was a good critic of his own work and only allowed his Fourth Symphony to be published. Listening to these two works on Chandos, one can appreciate his good judgment. (Get the earlier Chandos release of his Fourth Symphony.) However, if you are hooked on Taneyev, as I am, you will want to hear this Concerto, along with the music for solo piano that accompanies it, ably put forth by pianist Joseph Banowetz and the Russian Philharmonic, under Thomas Sanderling.
Martin comes as close to knowing everything in the music world as anyone I have met, but he has also specialized in Scandinavian and Baltic music. This interest has resulted in two very special releases. I had never heard of Ester Mägi (b. 1922), who is apparently known as the “First Lady of Estonian music.” Her orchestral music is represented on Toccata TOCC 0054, including a delightful neoclassical Piano Concerto, a pithy Symphony, and Variations for Piano, Clarinet, and Chamber Orchestra. Bukoolika, “a series of pastoral scenes for orchestra,” and Vesper for string orchestra (“I thought about this music as if it were an evening song,” she says) are completely enchanting shorter works. This music is tonal, sometimes tough, as in the Symphony, and does not seem to do anything out of the ordinary in a technical sense. But it has the freshness of original inspiration, an innate musicality that may come from the rich tradition of Estonian folk music, and covers a broad range of expression. This CD is deservedly listed as Editor’s Choice in Gramophone magazine’s latest awards issue.
Neighboring Latvia has produced Music for String Orchestra, by Peteris Plakidis (b. 1947), another composer completely new to me. His music (TOCC 0004) is immediately arresting in that it conveys a sense of such complete concentration on its essentials. This concentrated character calls to mind the works of Estonian Arvo Pärt, as well as those of Plakidis’s countryman Peteris Vasks.  Whether he is flirting with jazz or Bach — he does both — Plakidis seems to be hearkening back to something archaic, primeval, rooted in his land. He often employs Renaissance or Baroque forms (fugue, chaconne, canon) that impart a ritualistic, meditative feel and power to his music. I am particularly taken by the Concerto for Two Oboes and Strings, and the way in which Plakidis intertwines the two oboes around his highly lyrical theme. He does the same with two violins in the Concerto-Ballad for Two Violins, Piano and Strings. The three Songs for Wind and Blood are tremendously evocative, darkly dream-like, and impressionistic. I am enchanted by this music, so beautifully performed by the Riga Chamber Players, under conductor Normunds Sne, with Plakidis himself at the piano.
Did you ever hear a dream? These CDs are a model of what Martin Anderson has set out to achieve with Toccata Classics. More, please.

Robert R. Reilly is the music critic for E-mail him at [email protected].


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