Thanksgiving Bounty

This is my third attempt to get through the fall harvest of superb new CD releases, but it is still fall, and there is a lot to harvest. This abundance illustrates William Buckley’s recent remark in the November issue of the British Gramophone magazine, that "it has to be the greatest gift of modern times that we can have music pretty much whenever we like." However, it is not only whenever we like, but also whatever we like. And that is what leaves me staggered. I have piles of new CDs of music I never thought I would have the privilege of hearing, and some of which I had never heard before that now demands audition.
I had left off in part one, before my European peregrinations in part two, with the great chamber music of Sergei Taneyev. Therefore, I might as well pick up with the Russians and resume with him. It is great good news that the budget Naxos label has begun a new traversal of the Taneyev string quartets, with the Carpe Diem String Quartet. Vol. 1 (8.570437) contains Quartets Nos. 1 and 3. Carpe Diem seems to favor broad tempos, but plays with warmth and affection.
Taneyev did not particularly like the music of Alexander Glazunov, and neither do I. However, I cannot resist Glazunov’s sweetly melodious String Quintet and the Five Novelettes on a new Naxos CD (8.570256), gorgeously performed by the Fine Art Quartet, with Nathaniel Rosen playing the second cello. The music occasionally verges on the corny, but it is nonetheless irresistible.
Glazunov did no favors for Taneyev student Sergei Rachmaninov when, in his cups, he conducted Rachmaninov’s First Symphony, thus sabotaging the performance and sending Rachmaninov into deep depression. Rachmaninov was not the cheery sort to being with, as is evident from his Trios élégiaque Nos. 1 and 2. The huge Second Trio, at 45 minutes, shows that Rachmaninov had studied with the master Taneyev. It is a highly strung, riveting work, played with the requisite passion by Russian artists on another indubitable Naxos bargain (8.557423).
In the July/August issue of Crisis, I reported on my discovery of the chamber music of Paul Juon (1872-1940), yet another Taneyev student. His complete string quartets on Musiques Suisses CDs (MGB CD 6242) were a major find for anyone who cares for chamber music in the vein of Antonín Dvorák, though Juon came a generation later. Like Dvorak’s, Juon’s music swings, dances, and moves in directly communicative ways. It appears my placing of Juon in the Slovak school, though he was Swiss, was not adventitious: The Profil label has released a CD (PH 07013) pairing Juon’s Piano Quartet No. 1, Rhapsody, with Dvorak’s First Piano Quartet, played by the Artis Piano Quartet.
Juon’s Piano Quartet is stunningly good. It is hard to believe this man was almost totally eclipsed by the 20th century. There is an International Juon Society, created in 1998, to promote the resuscitation of his music, which is billed as "the missing link between Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky." I get the Tchaikovsky part, but I do not hear any Stravinsky. Both of Juon’s Piano Quartets are available on Musiques Suisses (MGB CD 6244), played by the Berlin Philharmonic Quartet. I marginally prefer the Artis version of Quartet No. 1, because it gives the music the extra bit of breathing space that allows for greater expressivity; but the driving force of the Berliners also has its attractions, along with the offer of the Second Quartet. By all means, you must hear one of these two versions of the indispensable First Quartet. Where has this music been all my life? But there is more: I have bagged the Challenge Classics 2-CD set (72002) of Juon’s six Piano Trios, beautifully performed by the Altenberg Trio Wien. They are exquisite. The two later works, titled Litaniae (Trio No. 4) from 1920 and Legende (Trio No. 5) from 1930, are reflective, melancholic, and touching. {mospagebreak}
My last Russian discussion this month will be of Jose Serebrier’s superb performance of Shostakovich’s complete ballet The Golden Age, with Royal Scottish National Orchestra on two Naxos CDs (8.570217-18). This is a work of Shostakovich’s youth (he was 24) and is largely a puckish delight, with everything from variations on Tea for Two, complete with saxophone, to jazz and foxtrots, as well as Shostakovich’s signature string sound. As my two encounters last year with his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk reminded me, Shostakovich was a brilliant orchestrator. This performance once again illustrates that Jose Serebrier is one of the most musical men on the podium today.
A complete newcomer to me is Hans Koessler (1853-1926), whose String Quintet and String Sextet are two of the most beautiful and stirring chamber pieces I have recently heard. Written in the early part of the 20th century, the music sounds thoroughly Viennese in its richness and gorgeous melody, though it is not from Vienna. Koessler studied in Munich, taught in Cologne and Budapest, and then retired to Ansbach. Nonetheless, the music, still classical in many respects, achieves a kind of aching lyricism that seems to prefigure Arnold Schoenberg’s ecstatic string sextet, Transfigured Night. The CPO label specializes in rescuing obscure composers; here, it has done a singular service, with superb performances by the Frankfurt String Sextet (CPO 777 269-2). One can only hope CPO will give us Koessler’s string quartets next.
Another nearly lost voice from the German world is Rudi Stephan, a composer who was killed in World War I at the age of 28. Most of his papers were subsequently lost in the Allied bombing of World War II. The Chandos label has issued a CD (CHSA 5040) with Stephan’s surviving Music for Orchestra, and Violin and Orchestra, which gives some measure to the magnitude of the loss. This music has an impressionistic flavor and at times a nearly hallucinogenic atmosphere that is very appealing. Again, I am reminded of the early, tonal, somewhat fevered works of Schoenberg. The performances by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, under Oleg Caetani, with violinist Sergey Stadler, are entrancing.
The Dacapo release (6.220518) of Carl Nielsen’s orchestral music, with Danish National Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Thomas Dausgaard, came in only a few votes shy of winning the Gramophone’s orchestral CD of the year award. It is certainly one of my CDs of the year. I have never heard better, more enlivening performances of the Maskarade Overture, Pan and Syrinx, Pastoral Scene for Orchestra, or the other works included here. Nielsen was one the greats of the first half of the 20th century. You should have all of his six symphonies, but you should have this, too.
The music of Danish Catholic priest Leif Kayser reminds me of Nielsen. However, when I was listening to his Symphonies Nos. 2 and 3 without having read the booklet notes, I thought the music prefigured Nielsen, rather than followed him, since it is so conservative in idiom. I was surprised to discover that these works date from 1939 and 1943, well after Nielsen’s death in 1931. That does not make these gentle, reflective works any less lovely, just derivate — though it is Hindemith’s influence I detect in the Third. This derivative aspect did not disturb Father Kayser; he wrote, "There are reviewers who have reproached me with the criticism that my music is based on traditions — and they are absolutely right. . . . I willingly concede my debt to all the composers. . . . I openly declare my love of Gregorian sacred music." Dacapo delivers very appealing performances from the Aalborg Symphony Orchestra, under Matthias Aeschbacher. This is listed as Vol. 1 (8.224708), so we may hope to hear more.
I close this fall harvest with a glorious orchestral orgy of sound. The Sea Hawk is one of the great sea adventure films, and Erich Wolfgang Korngold wrote one the great scores for it. You do not have to be an Errol Flynn fan to enjoy this music; all you have to do is imagine what a film score by Richard Strauss would have sounded like, et voila! This is not to denigrate Korngold’s achievement, but to praise it. Appropriately enough, the recording with the Moscow Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, under William Stromberg, is a sound spectacular on a 2-CD Naxos release (8.570110-11).
I have just begun, and now I must end. More treasures in December, along with a report on my visit to the San Francisco Opera to see Puccini’s La Rondine.
(A parting Christmas-shopping hint: Tower Records may be gone, but I have been having some luck finding items at very good prices on, especially in light of the fact that Tower does not charge for shipping.)

Robert R. Reilly is the music critic for E-mail him at

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