Music: Fall Potpourri

If I can curb my logorrhea, I will attempt to cover more new releases in capsule reviews in this article than ever before. The number of new CDs from my favorite labels belies the mourning over the demise of the classical music business, and I must catch up with them. The major labels may be brain-dead, but not the fleet of newcomers like Naxos, CPO, MDG, Albany, and others, which continue to fulfill my dreams and expand my horizons with more releases than time to listen to them. I can be brief because I have covered many of these composers in previous Crisis installments. To impose order I shall move chronologically forward from the 18th century. In order to make room for this endeavor, I shall forgo the separate listing of “Reilly Recommends.”

If Errol Flynn had been a French musician in the latter half of the 18th century, he would have been Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-George. Boulogne’s mother was an African slave; his father was a French planter who brought young Joseph from Guadeloupe to France. His prowess as a composer, violinist, and conductor earned him the appellation “Mozart noir.” He also became the finest swordsman in Europe. This is truly movie material. Naxos (8.557322) lets us hear three of his violin concertos with the Toronto Camerata, under Kevin Mallon, featuring violinist Qian Zhoiu. This very charming music, if not imbued with Mozart’s genius, has a Mozartean glow to it that is very appealing, especially in these fine performances.

The style goes through Mozart and then changes to Beethoven in the music of Friedrich Witt (1770-1836), one of whose works was mistaken as a newly discovered Beethoven symphony for half of the 20th century. This is more than a little odd since Witt more clearly inhabits the world of Haydn in the Symphony No. 6 and the Flute Concerto that the MDG label (MDG 329 1299-2) offers in scintillating performances by the Hamburger Symphony, under Johannes Moesus. However, the concluding Symphony No. 9, appropriately enough, shows that Witt heard Beethoven loud and clear. Its first movement even contains a recollection of the Pastoral Symphony. This is an immensely enjoyable release.

Witt’s close contemporary, Portuguese composer Joao Domingos Bomtempo, made the same stylistic journey as Witt did. I know Bomtempo from his superb Requiem, re-leased some time ago on Berlin Classics. Naxos (8.557163) now offers his Symphonies Nos. I and 2, played by the Algarve Orchestra, under Alvaro Cassuto. It is the Second Symphony that displays Beethoven’s influence. Both works are delicious and not to be missed by fans of this period.

Johann Wilhelm Wilms (1772-1847) is new to me, but an Archiv release of his Symphonies Nos. 6 and 7 (B0002998-02), with the Concerto Koln, under Werner Ehrhardt, snaps me to attention. This Dutch composer sounds as if he directly injected Beethoven into his bloodstream without an antidote. The effect is a little like listening to Haydn on steroids. Concerto Koln performs his works on original instruments, enhancing the unique effect. You have to hear this.

Another composer of this era, Ferdinand Ries, had direct access to the master as Beethoven’s secretary and student. Beethoven famously remarked that Ries imitated him too much. That was all to the good in CPO’s release of a stunning set of Ries’s eight symphonies. Now we can listen to two of his piano trios, with the Mendelssohn Trio Berlin, on a wonderful CPO release (CPO 777 053-2) that was my almost constant companion throughout the summer. So what if it sounds like Beethoven? Music of this kind demonstrates the extraordinary quality of the second-rank composers of the period. Nearly as delightful is the CPO release of Ries’s Septet and Octet, with the Linos Ensemble (CPO 999 937-2).

The Marco Polo label has almost single-handedly resuscitated the music of Ludwig Spohr (1784-1859), a one-time rival to Beethoven. In its unflagging dedication, Marco Polo (8.225307) has released volume No. 11 in its traversal of his 36 string quartets. This is what makes it a great label. Nos. 32 and 34, played by the Concertino String Quartet, show no signs of a diminution in quality of these superb works. Chamber music was Spohr’s strongest genre, and no one will be disappointed who has been entranced by the earlier works.

I have sung the praises of Russian composer Sergei Taneyev (1856-1915) for his great chamber works. Now I laud his choral work, At the Reading of a Psalm, issued by Pentatone (PTC 5186 038), with the Russian National Orchestra, St. Petersburg State Academic Capella Choir, and the Boys of the Glinka Choral College, under Mikhail Pletnev. This is a grand work, com-parable to the finest choral writing of Tchaikovsky. Superbly constructed, it shows why Tchaikovsky said that Taneyev’s extraordinary grasp of counterpoint was the greatest in Europe.

Naxos has completed the Maggini Quartet’s set of Frank Bridge’s String Quartets with its issue of Nos. 2 and 4, along with the Phantasy Piano Quartet (8.557283). This wonderful budget release is a no-brainer for anyone who enjoyed the recordings I recommended in my column, “A Bridge Too Far?” (January 2005).

CPO has another coup with its completion of Hugo Wolff’s cycle of American composer George Antheil’s six symphonies, superbly played by the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra (CPO 777 040-2). Antheil (1900-1959) was a real character (the self-proclaimed “bad boy” of music) and wrote music of character. The amusing thing about the Symphony No. 3, subtitled “American,” is that the America it portrays alternates be-tween Coplandesque Americana and visits from the continent. Shostakovich shows up regularly. Mahler visits in the andante. And in one of the strangest interpolations I have heard in music, Antheil drops a development section from Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony into the third movement. Well, you will not be bored by this or the three overtures and ballet, Capital of the World, that are included.

For years I have been looking for reasons to like the music of American composer Paul Creston (1906¬1985). The symphonies have eluded me. They seem to be overly thick in texture. Imagine my surprise when I was so taken with his highly lyrical Second Violin Concerto, superbly played by Gregory Fulkerson and the Albany Symphony Orchestra, under David Miller (Troy 723). I can’t imagine why this delightful work has not been recorded before. Not only is the Violin Concerto a major treat, the Fourth Symphony has a pastoral lightness that has me rethinking my whole attitude toward Creston. If you are starting on this man’s music, this is the place to begin.

With its release of Ahmed Saygun’s Symphony No. 4, CPO has finished its traversal of his five symphonies and added a Violin Concerto and folksy Suite (CPO 777 043-2). The greatest Turkish composer of the 20th century, Saygun stylistically crossed the borders (peacefully) into Hungary and Germany to produce highly sophisticated, densely rich music that requires and repays repeated listening. He was a Turkish Bart& and Hindemith rolled into one, along with his county’s indigenous folk influences. Releases like this are why CPO is a great label.

The Hyperion label gives us an-other CD of the scintillating music of Jean Francaix (CDA 67489). The two ballets—one based on The Emperor’s New Clothes and the other, “a cat ballet in one act”—are musical soufflés to be enjoyed in the spirit in which they are offered, as beautifully put forward by the Ulster Orchestra, under Thierry Fischer.

Nothing could sound more American than Stephen Hartke’s Clarinet Concerto. This jazzy, highly syncopated work is dominated by infectious rhythms. It is subtitled “Landscapes with Blues” and beautifully captures the spirit of the blues without musically condescending to it, a kind of 21st- century Gershwin. Hartke gives this and the other works on a new Naxos release (8.559201) finely grained textures that display an ear for subtle detail. This is a composer to watch. He must be very pleased by clarinetist Richard Stoltzman’s fabulous performance, as well as by the IRIS Chamber Orchestra, under Michael Stern.

In case you thought the Italian tradition of orchestral opulence from Respighi to Pizzetti had died out, you will be disabused of that notion by listening to the works of Elisabetta Brusa (b. 1954). These tremendously generous, traditional-sounding pieces, three tone poems, and the Nittermero Symphony may not measure up to their predecessors, but they are more than ear candy. I find that the more I luxuriate in them, the more I like them. The National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine, under Fabio Mastrangelo, turns in highly attractive, spirited performances for Naxos (8.555266).

There, I did it: 15 CDs reviewed— a new record!


  • Robert R. Reilly

    Robert R. Reilly has written for many publications, including The Wall Street Journal, Reader's Digest, The American Spectator, and National Review, and is the author or contributing author of over 20 books. His most recent book is America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding (Ignatius Press).

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