Wednesday, October 30, 2013

All Saints Day: A Vivace celebration

This Friday is All Saints Day and Vivace will celebrate the occasion with some special music.

We start at around 6:45 am with Four Little Prayers of St. Francis of Assisi by Francis Poulenc.

At 7 o'clock, we have the very familiar St. Anthony Chorale by Haydn, and the St. Anne Prelude and Fugue by Bach.  After 7:30, we have another real treat for you: music composed by St. Francis of Assisi himself.

In the 8 o'clock hour, we have a lovely - and surprising - variety of music connected with saints, including compositions by Arvo Part, Vaughan Williams and Mozart. 

As ever, I look forward to the pleasure of your company as we celebrate All Saints Day - Vivace style, Friday, 6 -9 am on WTJU.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Stuyvesnat Quartet: Brahms & Mozart -- Audio Treasures

Stuyvesant Quartet with Alfred Gallodoro, clarinet

The Stuyvesant Quartet was a group of talented musicians who left a remarkable legacy. Founded by by the Shulman brothers, Sylvan (violin) and Alan (cello) in 1938, the quartet consisted of preeminent musicians from broadcast network symphony orchestras. In 1950 they formed their own label -- Philharmonia -- with audio legend Norman Pickering as their recording engineer.

Although Philharmonia was short-lived, the recordings and performances were top-notch, as this current reissue attests. The sound is warm, but detailed. The ensemble is nicely balanced, with a natural-sounding blend. And the performances are very much of their time.

The Brahms Clarinet Quintet with clarinetist Alfred Gallodoro is given a heavily romantic and sometimes sweet, reading. It's a performance that's full of drama, yet there are passages where the ensemble seems to be simply savoring every note.

The Stuyvensant's performances of Mozart's String Quartet in D major, K. 499 and String Quartet in D major, K. 575 are more straight-forward. While there is more vibrato than you'd hear in a modern recording, the ensemble keeps things simple and uncluttered.

This reissue is a window into the past, and a valuable one. No modern quartet would perform these works in the manner of the Stuyvesant. Yet the high degree of musicianship and the emotional charge they give these works makes for compelling listening even today. And the Stuyvesant's interpretations yield insights that can still sound fresh to modern ears.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Bortniansky: Hymns and Choral Concertos - Orthodox beauty

Hymns and Choral Concertos
Ensemble Cherubim
Marika Kuzma, director

Dmitry Bortniansky (1751-1825) was almost an exact contemporary of Beethoven, and just as ground-breaking. He was the conductor of the Imperial Russian court and as composer, specialized in sacred choral music. The Russian Orthodox Church does not allow instruments to used in worship services, giving rise to a rich body of a cappella liturgical music.

Bortniansky took that tradition and updated it, creating a new type of sacred work, the choral concerto. This release presents nine of these works. While the texts are Russian, the harmonies are mostly Western, sounding somewhat akin to choral works by Schubert or even Mendelssohn.

Also included are two additional sacred works: The Cherubic Hymn No. 7, and the Kol slaven. The former is one of Bortniansky's most popular sacred works, often performed and recorded. The Kol slaven is even more popular: the tune became a Russian Christmas carol, and is more widely known in that version today.

The Ensemble Cherubim under Marika Kuyzma have a clean, intimate sound. One can easily hear inner workings of Bortniansky's harmonies and the interplay between voices. If you're not familiar with Bortniansky, or Russian Orthodox sacred music, this release is an excellent place to start.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Starobin Plays Giuliani -- an appealling program

Mauro Giuliani, Volume 2 
David Starobin, guitar
Amalia Hall , violin
Inon Barnatan, piano
Bridge Records

This recording has two things going for it. First, it's an album by David Starobin, one of the most talented classical guitarists performing today. Second, it's released on Starobin's record label, Bridge, which has been recording guitar music since 1981. In other words, a perfect match of artist and recorded sound.

Mauro Giuliani's compositions are part of the classical tradition of Mozart and Haydn. Starobin plays them with warmth and delicacy. Although written as showpieces, Starobin chooses to emphasize the musicality of the works, a decision that I think adds to their overall appeal.

And Starobin wisely varies the program, too. Included are the Op. 24a variations for violin and two rondos for violin and guitar. Violinist Amalia Hall plays with a simple purity of tone that perfectly suits the elegant variations. Inon Barnalan's style also meshes nicely with Starobin's, although I thought the recorded piano sound was a little muted.

All in all, though, an excellent recording of classical guitar works by Giulinai. Perhaps there will be a volume 3 someday...

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Coffee and Enchantment: Start your Friday with Vivace!

On this Friday's Vivace, be prepared to be enchanted and uplifted with some delightful music.

The first hour will be filled by just one work, Twenty-five Etudes for Guitar by French composer Napoleon Coste.

At 7 o'clock, we'll enjoy a symphony by Antonio Rosetti and at around 7:20 am, be prepared for some true enchantment as we bring you two versions of the Estonian Lullaby by Arvo Part.

We have a clarinet quintet by Franz Anton Hoffmeister, and the Duo in G, by Ferdinando Carulli.

At 8 o'clock, we have another special treat as we mark Reformation Day: the original version of Psalm 46 with music by Martin Luther followed by the famous arrangement of it by Johann Sebastian Bach from his Cantata BWV 80, which we know as the hymn "A Mighty Fortress is our God".

Later in the hour, we have a rare concerto for recorder and some delightful music of Mozart and Chopin to complete the program.  All in all, we promise you a rich bounty of musical offerings on this week's Vivace.  As ever, I look forward to the pleasure of your company, 6-9 am this Friday.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Anne-Marie McDermott: Transparent Mozart Concertos

W.A. Mozart: Piano Concertos (chamber versions)
Anne-Marie McDermott, piano
Calder Quaret
David J. Grossman, bass
Bridge Records

The three piano concertos (Nos. 12-14) on this new release had a somewhat checkered history. Mozart composed them as small-scale works in 1782 for a subscription concert he wished to put on.

The ensemble parts were composed in such a way that wind instruments were optional, and the string parts could be reduced to a simple string quartet if necessary. Thus, however much money was raised, the ensemble parts would be covered. Unfortunately, the subscription was unsuccessful. The works were eventually published, but only the full orchestral versions.

Hearing these three concertos in chamber form is something of a revelation. I didn't miss the orchestra at all. The pieces work very well with just a string quartet (or in the case of Piano Concerto No. 14, K.449 string quartet and bass) supporting the piano. It's a very clean, clear sound, and one that's perfectly, well, Mozartian.

Anne-Marie McDermott plays with taste and delicacy, capturing just the right emotion. Overly dramatic or aggressive playing could easily make the piano overpower the string quartet. And that's something that never happens on this recording. The Calder Quartet and McDermott are in full agreement, mutually working towards the same end.

These are delightful performances that I'll return to again and again. These chamber versions of the concertos are Mozart at his sunniest. Highly recommended, especially if you're only familiar with the full orchestral versions of these works.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Happy Birthday BBC ... and some music to delight you ... on Vivace this week!

We love to celebrate birthdays and on Vivace this week, we'll be blowing out the candles for the BBC's 91st birthday at around 7:45 am.  I hope you'll join in some very enjoyable music and songs!

We'll open the show with a piano concerto by Friedrich Kalkbrenner, followed by a Hofmann Flute Concerto.  At 7 am, we have a delightful clarinet concerto by Ignaz Pleyel, and after 8 o'clock, we'll enjoy a Mozart horn quintet, some baroque music of Georg Wagenseil and we'll end with four polonaises by Schubert.

As ever, I look forward to the pleasure of your company this week on Vivace, Friday morning, 6-9 am, on WTJU-Charlottesville

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Come Again: John Dowland and his Contemporaries

John Dowland & His Contemporaries
Come Again
Jan Kobow, tenor
Hamburger Ratsmusik
Simone Eckert, director

John Dowland's music usually shows up in recordings in one of two ways; either as a release of all-Dowland compositions, or as part of a compilation of English renaissance masters. But unlike many of his colleagues, Dowland traveled extensively (if not always voluntarily) throughout Europe.

In doing so, he was exposed to the courtly music of France, Italy, Denmark, and Sweden -- all of which influenced his own writing. Come Again programs Dowland's music alongside contemporary works by Samuel Scheidt, Orlando Gibbons, Michael Praetorius and others. The results are illuminating.

In one grouping, for example, we hear Dowland's 1597 song Can She Excuse My Wrongs, followed by Johann Schop's 1642 Sollt' ich, oBild der Tugend nicht preisen, an anonymous dauant Gagliard, and Gabriel Voigtländler's 1642 Weibernehmen ist kein Pferdekauf -- all sharing the same distinctive opening motif.

Not only are variety of composers presented, but the texture is varied as well. Some selections are sung with ensemble, others with lute accompaniment, and the exclusively instrumental tracks don't all have the same line up of instruments. All of this combines to create an engaging and fresh-sounding listening experience.

Simone Eckert and the Hamburger Ratsmusik perform on instruments of the period, and they do impeccably. Jan Kobow's clear tenor voice has a slightly soft and warm tone that's perfectly suited to Dowland's delicate compositions.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Something for everyone on this week's Vivace!

We have a delightful Vivace for you this week.  If you're an early bird, we'll start with a piano trio by Beethoven and the Lute Suite by Johann Sebastian Bach.  The first hour features an all-star cast of musicians:  Vladimir Ashkenazy, Itzhak Perlman, Lynn Harrell and John Williams.

At 7 am, we'll introduce you to the music of Joseph Fiala with his Oboe Concerto in B-Major - it's one of those tunes you'll be humming all day; and later, we'll have some delightful music by Carulli and Glazunov.

At 8 o'clock, we have a special treat for opera fans: a celebration of Puccini.  And we'll end with music of John Field, Mozart and Shostakovich.

There's something for everyone on Vivace this week. As ever, I look forward to the pleasure of your company, Friday, 6-9 am.

You can also replay the program anytime from the WTJU archives. The program will be available for replay through 10/30/13

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Gergiev and LSO shine with Szymanowski symphonies

Szymanowski: Symphonies Nos.1 & 2
London Symphony Orchestra
Valery Gergiev, conductor
SACD Recording

Symphony No. 1 was composed when Szymanowski was only 24, and he seemed to have considered it a youthful indiscretion. Yes, parts sound derivative of Richard Strauss' tone poems, and the structure isn't very tight in places.

But the symphony's a work with a lush, romantic sound and that's the work's strength. Gergiev understands that and presents the work with unbridled enthusiasm. These may be the exaggerated passions of youth, but they're genuine -- and in this recording, they're taken seriously.

In some ways, Szymanowski's second symphony No. 2 is proto-concerto, with solo violin playing off the orchestra. The influences of Richard Strauss and Max Reger are evident; the former in the first movement, the latter in the intricate second movement's fugue. Gergiev shapes the music to make these relationships more apparent.

Szymanowski at 27 was a much more confident composer than he was three years earlier, and Gregiev artfully articulates the structure of the music -- especially in the theme, variations, and fugue of the second movement.

I strongly recommend the SACD version if you have an SACD player. Although a live recording, the performances by the London Symphony Orchestra are immaculate. Subtle details of the sound of the instruments and the acoustics of the hall really make the music come alive. An excellent addition to LSO's self-released catalog.

Friday, October 4, 2013

John Musto concertos benefit from composer's performances

John Musto: Piano Concertos 1 & 2
John Musto, piano
Odense Symphony Orchestra; Scott Yoo, conductor (Concerto No. 1)
Greeley Philharmonic Orchestra; Glen Cortese, conductor (Concerto No. 2)

John Musto performs his piano concertos with telling effect. While these works are technically challenging, I don't hear keyboard prowess being the purpose of these works. Rather, the focus seems to be on the beauty and integrity of the musical expression. Which is what makes this recording work so well. Musto has the ability to play with precision and authority -- which he does -- but it's his phrasing and articulation that gets to the heart of these works.

Musto's first piano concerto (composed in 1988) opens with a solo clarinet that sets the tone for the work. It begins with a lyrical atonality that gradually builds in intensity. While this is a big composition, there are places that are surprisingly intimate. As the work progresses, the aggressive dissonances begin to soften. The second movement introduces a touch of ragtime, leading into a bustling and satisfying final movement.

The Piano Concerto No. 2, written 18 years after the first, shows how much the composer's skill has developed. The orchestration is more varied, and more adventurous. While the first concerto flirted the vocabulary of popular music, this one fully incorporated it, in the way that Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" encapsulated jazz. Unlike Gershwin's Rhapsody, Musto's concerto is more fully realized, and highly structured.

That's not to say the second concerto's a stuffy academic exercise. The music flows seamlessly from start to finish in an inviting fashion. It's only later that you realize that the engaging first movement cadenza involved some deftly written counterpoint.

Separating the two concertos in the program are two of Musto's concert rags. They're appealing light classical compositions, perfect encore material.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Lithuanian Composer Vladas Jakubenas Rediscovered

Vladas Jakubenas: Chamber & Instrumental Music
Vilnius String Quartet
Kasparas Uinskas, piano
Kaskados Piano Trio
St. Christopher Chamber Orchestra; Donatas Katkus, conductor
Toccata Classics

Vladas Jakubenas has been called "The Lithuanian Hindemith," and this new collection from Toccata Classics helps explain why. Jakubenas moved from his native Lithuania to Berlin in the late 1920's to study with Franz Schrecker. He remained until 1932, then returned home.

The Second World War forced Jakubenas to eventually make his way to the United States, where he died in 1976. The war had a disruptive effect on his compositional output. during the postwar years Jakubenas devoted more time to writing and teaching, becoming a respected contributor to journals, encyclopedias, as well as drama and music critic.

The album opens with Jakubenas' 1929 String Quartet No. 4. The work receives a spirited performance by the Vilnius String Quartet in this recording. The modernist (and mostly tonal) harmonic underpinnings of the work make it sound very much like a Hindemith composition with a hint of Janacek. Jakubenas wasn't as interested in counterpoint as Hindemith, though, so the quartet spends a great deal of time developing and presenting long, flowing melodies supported by dense harmony.

The Two Pictures, Op. 2 are charming miniatures for piano that seem more influenced by Rimsky-Korsakov than the Berlin school of the 1920's. They would be right at home in a recital of Medtner and Debussy.

Jakubenas based his 1930 Melody-Legend for violin and piano on a Lithuanian folk tale. And that folk influence becomes more pronounced as the piece progresses. Jakubenas moves from a mild form of atonality to a romantic and emotive conclusion.

The Serenade for cello and piano is the latest to be written, and suggests the direction Jakubenas was moving towards. The modernist tendencies found in his earlier works are largely absent from this 1936 composition. Instead, Jakubenas seems to using Ravel as a starting point. The cello line is smooth and elegant, without being overly expressive. The piano's harmonies have a shimmery quality to them, strengthening the connection (at least to my ears) with Ravel.

The most ambitious work on the album is the 1928 Prelude and Triple Fugue in D for string orchestra. The prelude flows along at a brisk pace, the voicing of the ensemble reminded me quite a bit of Benjamin Britten's early works. The fugue, though, represents a return to the Hindemith ideal. The counterpoint is rigorously worked out in a tonal framework that Hindemith would have approved of.

Before auditioning this release, I was completely unfamiliar with Vladas Jakubenas. After hearing the works on this album, I'm interested in hearing more, especially his larger more ambitious works, such as his symphonies. Kudos to Toccata Classics for this fine disc of world premier recordings.