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Tavener: Eternal Memory; Akhmatova Songs; The Hidden Treasure; Chant

The recent death of Diana, Princess of Wales has brought the music of British composer John Tavener (b. 1944) centre stage. His Song for Athene was heard by over 1.5 billion people during the English princess' televised funeral ceremony at Westminster Abbey. It is disconcerting to think that it takes the tragic death of a major celebrity to bring a living composer's work to the attention of the general public. As with Song for Athene, the compositions on this disc center on the themes of Paradise Lost, the transient nature of life, death and the remembrance of death and are representative of Tavener's music since his conversion to the Russian Orthodox Church in 1977. Musical forces range from solo cello to soprano, bass, strings and percussion; string quartet; or Byzantine chamber choir. There are some striking moments in each of these works which help to balance the occasional tedium of the musical arguments brought on whenever Taverner substitutes the dignity of a simple line for heavy, orientalist brushstrokes. Still, Tavener's faith is clearly genuine and the music benefits from performances by strong musicians.

Joseph E. Romero

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Stockhausen: Gruppen für drei Orchester
Kurtag: Grapstein für Stephan op 15c; Stele op. 33


Whatever one's opinion of Karlheinz Stockhausen's work, Gruppen for three orchestras (1955-1957) is fast becoming a classic. The organisational system of the Darmstadt veteran's 22-minute opus tests pitch and rhythm as aspects of vibration, carves up the 109-member-Berlin Philharmonic into three formations and requires the musical direction of three conductors. It is an effective and well-crafted composition which benefits from the precision and clarity of the Berlin players. Hungarian composer György Kurtag (b. 1926) heard Gruppen early on, assimilated it and has produced an emotionally gripping and in many ways superior musical composition to Stockhausen's serialist polyphonies: Grabstein für Stephan (Gravestone for Stephen) (1989) is scored for spaced groups of keyboards, tuned percussions, gongs, football supporters' alarm signals and whistles, reeds and brass, and low strings, all positioned around a solo guitar. It is dark, attractive music, and while intellectually subtle, does not require knowledge of differential and integral calculus or a university diploma in computer science to enjoy it. Kurtag's Stele, the third and last piece on this disc, is equally as compelling. Composed for a traditional orchestra and completed in October 1994, Stele is a perfectly chilling three-movement funeral symphony and a distinguished achievement in the genre. Claudio Abbado and his Berliners' performance, delivered without the slightest trace of modernist pomp, is another reason why this live recording should be acquired at once.

Joseph E. Romero

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J.S. Bach:
The Four Orchestral Suites


It would be difficult to question Frans Brüggen's scholarship in the performance of these scores. Moreover, he is at the head of one of the leading period performance bands on the market. That said, this rather mild-mannered version of the Bach Orchestral Suites lacks bite and doesn't swing. If you want a more Teutonic version with plenty of snap, try Reinhold Göbel and his Musica Antiqua Köln on Archiv.

Joseph E. Romero

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Mendelssohn: L'oeuvre pour piano et orchestre


With the exception of the late Rudolf Serkin, recordings of Mendelssohn's music for piano and orchestra rarely get much better than this. Brazilian pianist Jean Louis Steuerman's consistently dapper playing throughout the two piano concerti, B-Minor Capriccio brilliant, Serenade and Allegro giocoso op. 43 and the little known Rondo brilliant in E flat Major op 29 "all" on one CD make this budget recording exceptional value for money.

Joseph E. Romero

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The Pan African Orchestra: Opus 1

In 1985, Ghanaian composer Nana Danso Abiam, the newly appointed musical director of the Ghanaian National Symphony Orchestra, asked orchestra members to give up violins and oboes for bamboo flutes, elephant tusks and wooden xylophones. Despite initial resistance from the European-trained African musicians as well as the technical and acoustical hurdles, the Pan African Orchestra has emerged as an artistically innovative formation as tightly knit as some of Europe's leading period instrument ensembles today. After all, this meant common tuning for incompatible instruments and precision in ensemble playing, a new system of score notation and orchestration in order to set-down, study, and perform new or traditional works in a neo-classical idiom. Moreover, the Pan African Orchestra goes well beyond other major African formations such as the Ensemble Symphonique de Guinée whose repertoire and use of African instruments is limited to the local and the traditional. Mr Abiam and his Ghanaian musicians' unusual combination of African violins, harp-lutes, notched flutes, xylophones, drums and percussion interpret striking musical compositions such as Yaa Yaa Kolé or Mmenson, a horn septet, or Explorations that are both immediate and a delight to the ear and to the feet. In fact, several works on this disc - such as Adawura Kasa - would doubtless turn a few heads in American minimalist circles. Probably already have. And it is hardly surprsing that contemporary European composers, such as the Hungarian György Ligeti, have found recent inspiration in the polyphonies and polyrhythms of African music. This recording is an auspicious début and marks the end of what was often considered "primitive music", reserved to over-enterprising doctoral candidates of ethnomusicology.

Joseph E. Romero

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Dvorak:
Symphonies Nos. 3 & 7


A strong coupling and an excellent program vehicule to assess the conducting talent of Mr Chung who wastes little time in exploiting the splendid tonal resources of the Vienna Philharmonic. The Third Symphony receives a brisk treatment, although the adagio is more of a lyrical pas de deux between Chung and Vienna, rather than the composer's suggested funeral march. The Korean conductor underplays the influence of Wagner and successfully shapes the entire score as a suave, Bohemian pastoral. As for the difficult Seventh Symphony, there are already several outstanding recordings: Rafael Kubelik and the Berlin Philharmonic is one (DG), Antal Dorati and the London Symphony (Mercury) another, Carlo Maria Giulini and the London Philharmonic Orchestra on EMI (Forte 568 62 82) still another. Chung's dramatic and highly atmospheric approach earns its place alongside these versions, although with Chung we hear Dvorak under the influence of Brahms and Bruckner. The bittersweet adagio is delivered with charm and style and the finale is strong and well-characterised.

Joseph E. Romero

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Nino Rota: Oeuvres pour Orgue (Organ works)

Italian composer Nino Rota (1911 - 1979) is most remembered for his quirky, highly original and entertaining Fellini soundtracks: La Dolce Vita, La Strada, Satyricon, Amarcord, Il Casanova among others. Although Rota wrote only one work for organ out of more than 300 compositions, Livia Mazzanti's stylish organ interpretations of his music seem as strangely apt for the king of instruments as the uncanny and often ingenuous facial expressions of the late Giulietta Masina who made Juliet of the Spirts and Nights of Cabiria, among other films, so unforgettable. The album includes extracts from Fellini's Casanova, Il Padrino, an organ sonata, a handsome set of variations and fugue on the name of Bach (originally written for the piano), and two ironic works full of charm: Circus Waltz and Valse Carillon.

Antoine du Rocher

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Fasch: Concertos; Orchestral Suite

Trained as a lawyer, Johann Friedrich Fasch (1688 -1758) not only served as legal advisor and court secretary to Count Wenzel Morzin in Prague, but also distinguished himself as an excellent violinist and opera composer during his tenure as Kapellmeister at Anhalt-Zerbst. Cast in the attractive style of the Italian ritornello concerto, the Baroque compositions heard on this disc delight the listener because of the rhetorical craftsmanship of the woodwind parts, notably for oboe and bassoon. Trevor Pinnock and his English band articulate the syncopated rhythms, chromatic inflections, and rich harmonic textures with polish and verve. Highly recommended.

Joseph E. Romero

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Chopin: Quatre Scherzos; Quatre Ballades

Released on Philips budget label "Solo", Rafael Orozco's alert, robust performances of Chopin's four scherzi recorded in 1974 are a real find. Unfortunately, the disc is padded out with Bella Davidovitch's anorexic interpretations of the Polish composer's four ballades. Still worth considering for Orozco at the price.

Antoine du Rocher

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Leguerney: 28 Mélodies
Leguerney: Mélodies

Jacques Leguerney, who died 10 September, celebrated his 90th birthday last year, an event to which some of the smaller labels responded in style. As part of its series Mélodiste français, Maguelone called upon the services of Didier Henry, a baryton-martin able to cope stylishly with the extended range of some of these songs. Claves in conjunction with Swiss Radio started with pianist Mary Dibbern, an expert on the composer and editor of the complete edition of his songs. Unfortunately, the bulk of the singing on the Claves recording falls to Danielle Borst who does not always sound comfortable and makes little of her words, with Brigitte Balleys sounding far less engaged than is her wont. If a choice had to be made between the two, take Didier Henry, who also includes some of the late cycles written for Bernac and Souzay, but then you would miss the composer's settings of such 20th century poets as Apollinaire or Louise Lalanne (Marie Laurencin). Both sets have excellent essays (in French and English) by Patrick Choukroun, but texts of the songs are only in French.

Joel Kasow

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Britten: Spring Symphony; Five Flower Songs; Hymn to St. Cecilia

Gardiner's choral affinities are given full play in some of Britten's more exuberant works. The Spring Symphony benefits from the fresh voices of the soloists, Ainsley demonstrating that it is not necessary to be a Pears clone to be successful in this music. Catherine Robbin may not efface memories of Ferrier or Baker, but is nonetheless touching in the Auden poem which closes the second part of the work. It is Gardiner who maintains total control over the piece which can sometimes seem too disparate, culminating in an enthusiastic final section. The remaining (unaccompanied) items on the disc include the seminal Hymn to St. Cecilia set to a poem by Auden in which Britten demonstrates his comprehension of the poet and at the same time declares his independence, and the effective Flower Songs. Highly recommended.

Joel Kasow

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Paraphrases de bravoure sur les Opéras de Wagner: Louis Brassin: Feuerzauber (Der Ring der Nibelungen)

Anyone familiar with the history of great pianism will recognize the pianist/composers of these extravagant Wagner operatic transcriptions. Most advanced keyboard students will recognize the interpreter since Michael Ponti performed these and dozens of other obscure nineteenth cenutry virtuoso pieces long before it became fashionable or a matter of survival for struggling record labels and fragile piano careers. Technically, Ponti offers more than a credible reading of these terrifyingly difficult and sometimes boisterous works. Most impressive is how he manages to make music with transcriptions which, here or there, qualify as kitsch, or if not, can sound patently vulgar in lesser hands. Listen to Tausig's Fantasy on the Ride of the Walkyries or Ponti's sensible defense of Moszkowski's Isoldens Tod.

Antoine du Rocher

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Schumann: Phantasiestücke, op. 12; Waldszenen, op. 82

Is it really important that these two irresistible performances of major piano works by Schumann date from the same year Israel evacuated the Gaza strip, racist incidents flared in Little Rock, Arkansas, Humphrey Bogart and Arturo Toscanini died and the Soviets launched Sputnik 1? Probably not. Dubbed Les Grandes Années (The Great Years), Deutsche Grammophon's most recent budget series attempts to confer upon republished material a vintage quality that might have escaped us. Ignore the rather too cute market pitch, but do snap up these two important recordings by Richter and Kempff...if you haven't got them already.


Joseph E. Romero

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