February 3, 2016
David Porcelijn conducts the Bochumer Symphony
One of the incredible bonuses of being able to review for Naxos is the introduction of new composers and music available to me. Such is the case with the Dutch composer Henk Badings (1907-1987) pedagogue and composer. His lack of popularity can be attributed to his dealings with the Nazi party during the war years. At one time his material was banned from being performed in his native country. As one Dutch friend put it so eloquently “The whole blacklisting was a bit McCarthy-esque as a great many composers, artists, bands and orchestras had signed up, simply because otherwise they would not be allowed to play (hence to make a living)!*) Principles are one thing, starvation another. Thankfully after about two years the zealousness of the immediate post-War righteousness had abated, and pretty much everyone who had not been an immediate collaborator or true propagator of Nazi propaganda or ideals was pardoned.”
The 4th Symphony was completed in December of 1943, had nothing to do with the war but instead is witty and has a natural sound that has truly grown on me during several listens to it. I don’t feel it is anything that you could compare to any of his contemporaries. He is unique and very melodic following a traditional Lento-Allegro, Scherzo, Largo, and Allegro format. It wasn’t performed until after the war in Rotterdam in 1947 dedicated to the conductor Eduard Flipse who also conducted the premiere. The opening movements begin with ominous chords like an oncoming storm that quickly dissipates into the introduction of the main theme with the trombones leading the way. After a brief opening the Scherzo turns into sweeping theme carried by the strings followed by another powerful burst of energy from the brass. The oboe and strings continue the memory with a hint of a fugue and staccato dissonant passages. It is a well done Scherzo and could very well find its way to my best of compilation CD’s, something that I’ve got for all types of allegros, andantes, vivaces, etc. The Largo is a yearning melancholy theme which reminds me of Strauss. The finale Allegro is somewhat slower than some but offers yet another strong melody which is passed from section to section nicely. This is a real winner.
The Fifth Symphony was a commissioned work for the 60th anniversary of the Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Eduard van Beinum, who had been a supporter of his music since the 30’s. The four movements are very similar to the 4th; Lento-Allegro, Scherzo, Largo, and Presto. The Lento-Allegro definitely has jazzy passages not unlike Ellington, Prokofiev, or early Shostakovich. While quite dissonant the melody is still layered in the material to filter through. The Scherzo is clearly modern sounding with short cells of dissonant material followed by quiet passages. The Largo reminds me of film music which was also noted by a 1955 review of the material. His harmony with the brass adds so nicely to the overall quietness of the movement. The finale, a Presto is a boisterous with yet another strong melody.
To my knowledge this is the third release of material from CPO of his works. I look forward to more material.
January 19, 2016
Sergej Rachmaninov (1873-1945) was part of the second wave of Russian composers after the “Mighty Five” and Tchaikovsky with a small amount of overlap from Tchaikovsky who arranged for a performance of his Aleko, a one act opera written as his graduation piece from the Moscow Observatory in 1889. In fact Tchaikovsky went so far as to feature the work with one of his Opera’s, quite a feather in the cap of the 16 year old. Tchaikovsky considered Rachmaninov to be his successor as both wrote in the traditional Germanic style unlike Scriabin who was born a year earlier and went in a completely different direction. Throughout his life Sergej spent his entire life in this very conservative mode. After the 1917 revolution Rachmaninov emigrated to Paris and finally to Hollywood, CA in 1935 where he wrote these last two works represented on this Oehms Classic CD. There are many recordings of both of these works as these are works that the public find accessible, easy on the ears, melodic, and the correct length for older vinyl recordings and the second half of a concert program. My first recordings were on the Vox/Turnabout label with a very young (so was I) Leonard Slatkin conducting the St. Louis Symphony. If I remember correctly I had to return them to the record store to get platters that had a minimal amount of pops. With this recording today you’ll no longer be faced with this problem but will get a properly engineered CD with good sound quality
The 3rd Symphony in A minor, op. 44 was written in 1935 and Stokowski gave the premiere with the Philadelphia in November of 1936. The three movement work, while something of a change for Rachmaninov, being less stoic and offering more harmonics and improved instrumentation is still as Rachmaninov states “I am a Russian composer” and it indeed is shown in this work. The melancholy and yearning are all present in the first movement with a melodic theme my brain has remembered for over 40 years. The second movement is not unlike the second movement of the dances with it’s solo violin playing the main theme without the saxophone. An Andante of the first order that transforms itself into an Allegro. The final movement, the longest of the three with yet another lush theme that as it is being developed we hear a playful oboe and then a fugue. I like it! The finale is a rousing one with a full fff from the orchestra with an abrupt ending. The work according to the NY Times was acidic, an adjective which did not sit well with Sergej. He was extremely sensitive to criticism and in some ways it may have contributed to his smaller output. The adjective that I would use to describe the work is delightful.
The Symphonic Dances, op. 45 was his last work and if I could sum it up it’s a potpourri of some of his previous works. There are references to several of his works as well as Dies irae, a piece that he used in several of his other works, something that many composers used as a motif of death. The opening theme which is featured in the first movement is well orchestrated, the theme being passed from section to section. The second slower movement is featured as a saxophone solo with the winds providing the harmony. A very quiet soft section. The second movement features a theme that is performed by first a solo violin and then the woodwind section. The strings are sweeping and nicely flowing. The final movement an allegro vivace, begins quietly with the woodwinds but quickly moves into the Dies irae theme followed by a lively Spanish/Russian dance filled with orchestration that reminds me of Rimsky-Korsakov.
I like this recording because it offers the latest in digital technology and an orchestra and conductor who know how to perform and conduct this material. If you don’t have this work in your collection and you’re inclined toward orchestral works this is for you.
January 8, 2016
Victor Young (1900-1956) spent much of his entire life with a sweet band (singing strings was his trademark) and chief composer for Paramount Studios doing over 300 scores many with memorable tunes that when you left the theater you were humming it. When you looked at him with his slick black hair and rough complexion you would picture a chicago gangster/prize fighter who was in the illegal booze racket during the prohibition years. You certainly wouldn’t want to meet this cigar smoking man on a dark street. He was known to participate in marathon card poker games with Tiomkin and Steiner and seemingly had inexhaustible energy. The coveted Oscar eluded him for his entire life although he was nominated 22 times. His last film “Around the World in 80 Days” was given to him posthumously. My favorite song that he did for Hollywood and a jazz standard performed by my favorite jazz pianist Bill Evans Stella by Starlight was even nominated. It shows you how little Hollywood knows sometimes. The song is given first row treatment in the ample reconstruction of the film “Uninvited.”
The CD starts out with the main theme from “The Greatest Show on Earth ,” a circus march that would have made Sousa and Barnum proud. This is a tune to be played by marching bands in parades and sporting events.
“The Uninvited (1944),” a tale of a ghost and dark mansions gives Young ample opportunity to write underscore that is both playful and dark. Blended into the score is the wonderful Stella by Starlight theme which is nicely woven into the tracks by John Morgan and nicely performed by William Stromberg conducting the Moscow Symphony Orchestra. A short but wonderful track is The Village which takes you to Ireland for a brief but enchanting track. Another good underscore track is The Sobbing Ghost which is playful but also eerie and ends on a bright note with the Stella theme. The 24 minutes pass by very quickly.
“Gullivers Travels (1939),” also reconstructed by John Morgan was not a success at the box office but what does that have to do with score. Young came up with a fine offering of sentimental, melodramatic, and cartoon like music all with the trademark sound he did 300 times. The Prelude and the Storm offers stirring storm music, the main theme, and a bit of comic relief. The brass have a section where they earn their money with a bit of complicated playing.
“Bright Leaf (1952),” a film Young did for Warner Brothers about a tobacco farm starring Gary Cooper. As is the case with most scores Victor Young offers us a bright major key theme which is followed by a second theme written in harmony to the first one in Prelude-Welcome to Kingsmont. The six minute track also has a danger cue and a bit of frivolity, an excellent track. Sonia is yet a third theme that is light and delicate, a fine example of a theme for the lovely Lauren Bacall. Machine Montage is exactly what you think it might be depicting machines in machine sometimes at a frantic pace and mixed in with the main theme.Margaret is another sweet sentimental love about the character in the film who is cast aside for Sonia. Tobacco Montage is similiar to the machine track except there is quite a display of brass. Southern Vengeance has all sorts of things happening in the final six minute track.The Fie begins with strains of desperation and display. The Finale recaptures the memorable music that you heard in the beginning of the film.
The sound which was once special is little more than adequate today as digital quality has taken a leap forward. With the cost today of soundtracks this one coming in at $8.99 is quite a bargain. This release is identical to the Marco Polo #8.225063 which was released in 1998.
January 6, 2016
PENTATONE PTC5186514 SACD [78:00]
Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915) is to be classified in the second wave of Russian composers who wrote material in the early 20th century that had an impact on Russian classical music. He had the same piano teacher Nikolai Zverev as Rachmaninoff in their early teenage years and both went to the Moscow Conservatory studying counterpoint from Taneiev and composition with Alexander Arensky. Both went on to have extraordinary careers in completely different directions. While Rachmaninoff continued in the tradition of Tchaikovsky Scriabin at first wrote wonderful small pieces Chopin like for the piano and then wrote in a traditional sonata form which Copland praised Scriabin’s thematic material as “truly individual, truly inspired”, but criticized Scriabin for putting “this really new body of feeling into the strait-jacket of the old classical sonata-form, recapitulation and all”, calling this “one of the most extraordinary mistakes in all music.” His first symphony falls into this category having been written during the time period of 1899-1900. In 1903 Scriabin moved to Switzerland and this was when he composed his 4th Symphony “Poem of Ecstasy” which I reviewed https://sdtom.wordpress.com/2015/12/30/scriabin-symphonies-nos-3-4/ for LSO.
Symphony No. 1 in E major, op. 26 begins with a Lento a clarinet offering the theme until the strings takeover. One can hear the fluttering of flutes in harmony with the orchestra and a solo violin and clarinet with the orchestra in the background. Scriabin was a believer that the musical notes were tied into color and e major was red-purple which ties into the mood of the movement. The second movement allegro drammatico certainly lives up to it’s name with a melodrama rising up and down. One can very easily picture this in an opera as I’m reminded of Wagner. The third movement another lento is slowly played and quite moving offering a yearning feeling of hopelessness. The fourth movement, only four minutes, is titled vivace and it doesn’t disappoint. It is a lively dance of sorts that reminds you of something that Glazunov might have written. The fifth movement is titled allegro as Scriabin returns to the tempo of the third movement with less of an emphasis on the dramatic. The sixth and final movement begins with the flute, clarinet, and oboe offering the theme until the singing (mezzo-soprano and tenor) talks about the divine being and art coming together. It is quite moving.
Symphony No. 4 (The Poem of Ecstasy), op. 67 was written in 1908 in Brussels just before his return to Moscow. By now he was moving toward atonality and his color code of fifths played a prominent role. I’m reminded of Gustav Holst and his work “The Planets.” It is written in a sonata form the there are smaller melodic cells and it definitely has a feeling of not of this world. I prefer the trumpet of this recording to the one offered by the LSO.
This newly recorded work is in my opinion far superior to my previous CD recorded on the Naxos label with the Moscow Symphony conducted by Igor Golovschin. The sound is much brighter with excellent instrument separation. The Russian National Orchestra under the direction of Mikhail Pletnev do an extraordinary job on this CD.
January 3, 2016
“On Sunset Boulevard The Life and Times of Billy Wilder,” a book written by Ed Sikov, devotes over a chapter to the making of “The Lost Weekend,” a fictional novel by Charles Jackson, which is very much autobiographical. Jackson was not only alcoholic but addicted to pills (Seconal) as well and struggled with both for a good part of his life. In my opinion this would also have made a great story. Written in 1944 the book quickly became a hit and it was on a news stand that Wilder bought the book for his train ride and by the time he reached his destination he had already started writing the screenplay for it. As the story unfolds in the making of the picture Joseph Breen, head of the Production Code Administration went right to work in tearing down the submitted screenplay and as a result the novel couldn’t be shot the way Wilder wanted. The homosexual passages and the hinting of prostitution all had to be taken out of the script. The ending of the book, a depressing one with no hope, had to be changed to a happy one to please the audience. There are numerous events connected to the making of the picture such as Milland attempting to be pinched because he looked so bad in front of Bellevue hospital and Wilder carrying on two affairs with Audrey Young and Doris Dowling while still married, and an offer from the liquor industry to buy the film for five million dollars quite a juggling act. The end result was multiple Oscars for Milland, screenplay, director, and picture of the year. Now let’s talk about the music.
A temp track of Gershwin type music with xylophones turned out to be a disaster when a preview was given in Santa Barbara so much so that the film was nearly abandoned. Enter Miklos Rozsa who had worked with Wilder on his last film “Double Indemnity” and not only was the problem solved but Miklos received an Oscar but lost out to another score he did “Spellbound.”
Rozsa offers three basic main themes which he uses throughout the entire film. The prelude is a brash dissonant which is introduced by the brass which gives way to the strings and the brass become harmony. The strings cry out with melodrama and if one is familiar with Rozsa the sound is the film noir one that became his trademark. It is a theme that you’ll remember after listening to this CD a couple of times The end of the track introduces a secondary theme, “New York Skyline” a tribute to the lure of New York. However, right at the end we hear a bit of the second theme, the best in the film in my opinion, which is a calling card that Ray Milland (Birnam) is wanting to drink. We hear the introduction of the electronic instrument the theremin a wailing sound intermixed with the clarinet giving it a whirling effect. This is a true leitmotif that will be present whenever there is drinking or the thought of it. The third theme is also a leitmotif that of the love and support that Helen (Jane Wyman) had for Don Birnam. It is the one calming influence in the turmoil he has created with desire to drink. Sometimes the solo gypsy style violin is used in c major to add the schmaltz necessary. The solo violin is also used with the drinking motif offering the melody as the swirling theremin provides the harmony. This was the second time that Rozsa used the instrument, the first film being “Spellbound.” The instrument would go on to have quite a following.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theremin There is also what I like to call the bat theme, a sequence when Birnam is in Bellevue and going through the withdrawal/delirium tremors. You’ll hear this on the “Nightmare” track along with some other material that critics of the time called a horror classic. Also included on the CD are 6 extra cues including material not used in the film. The liner notes written by Frank K. DeWald are researched and well written.
We now must come to the bad part of this CD release which is the terrible sound quality. Even with my mono speaker setup, which I use on these types of recordings, there was no improvement. I’m not blaming Intrada or their engineers at all just warning you that this is a archival recording some of which has been damaged.
Rozsa collectors are very happy as this is a step up from the Koch recording or the older Tony Thomas LP’s.
December 30, 2015
Much of the music of Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915) has been recorded and performed this year to acknowledge the 100th year anniversary of his death and this new live London Symphony Orchestra recording offers his 3rd and 4th symphonies written during the time frame when Alexander had become interested in mystical and occult ideas which had a direct influence upon his music.
Scriabin and Rachmaninov were born a year apart and for a time were linked together as both attended the Moscow Conservatory and both were concert pianists with some of the same teachers. However, while Scriabin was convivial and elegant Rachmaninov was taciturn and stoic. Scriabin tried to take music to a new level combining religion, arts, and color. Scriabin had chromesthesia, the ability to sense colors in musical notes. Rachmaninov followed in the footsteps of Tchaikovsky but his colors were traditional. Both were successful but in diverse directions.
Symphony No. 3 (“The Divine Poem”), op. 43 was written between 1902-1904 at a time in his life when ideas of the occult and mystical ideas began to absorb his life. The opening movement offers two themes which you’ll hear throughout the three movements. The movement is filled with feeling and strong emotion depicting human life with its trials and tribulations. The second movement titled “Delights” uses the theme from the first movement but this time Scriabin focuses on the use of individual solos within the orchestra which brings out the heart felt emotion. One can hear the chirping of birds in the springtime in this overall tranquil movement. The third movement “Divine Play” also uses the themes that you heard in the first movement only this time it seems that Scriabin goes all out in the ultimate grandiose manner attempting to bring out the maximum amount of feeling blended with a bit of humor.
Symphony No.4 (“The Poem of Ecstasy”), op. 54 was written in 1908 but Alexander was already thinking about it before he had completed his third. By now Scriabin had been completely absorbed in as he states”… An ocean of cosmic love encloses the world and in the the intoxicated waves of this ocean is bliss…” The opening melody with the solo trumpet offering the melody is quite reminiscent of parts of The Planets from Holst. One can also hear the strains of Debussy in some of the quieter moments. Scriabin appears to have broken this 20 minutes down and written the material in cells that somehow end up being quite cohesive when the work ends.
Having heard these works before the thing that sticks out in my mind most is the superb recording job done by the people at Classic Sound Ltd. This is a live recording but one can’t hear that to be the case. If you have multi channel 5.1 it will sound even better as these works from Scriabin are large grandeur pieces lend themselves to multi channel systems. This CD is nicely conducted by Valery Gergiev and would be a good choice if one wishes to have this in your collection.
December 27, 2015
RPO SP 050
As an encore to their two volume Hollywood Block Buster CD (RPO SP034) the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra plays some of the newer releases including some favorite composers of mine Williams and Desplat. The overall sound of this CD is on the easy listening side with tracks such as Lincoln leading the way. Written as much as a tribute to Copland as Lincoln the stirring music brings out the USA in the best who listen to the piece. Other John Williams compositions include The Book Thief, a very delicate, melancholy, theme that features the piano with counterpoint being provided by the harp. Another winner to the long list of successful film themes. War Horse is a third again quite melancholy but with one of those wonderful themes that you’ll be humming when you leave the theater. Along with the theme is harmony that Williams knows how to write so well. Dario Marianelli a very successful film composer of over 50 films is an Oscar winner for Atonement as well as a nominee for the picture Anna Karenina presented on this CD. It is a wonderful carousel dance number that reminds you of the finest balls from the kingdoms of the world. The King’s Speech, a Alexandre Desplat nominee, begins like many of his themes with a piano that is bouncy and full of vigor. That eventually changes into a funeral like theme. Having seen this film I can tell you that Desplat, who has done 100 films, writes for the situation on the screen nicely. The main theme from Skyfall, written by Adele is performed without lyrics although as is many times the case the Bond themes become pop hits. The Oscar nominated Thomas Newman score is something else that one may want to explore.
How To Train Your Dragon 2 is not a film I would normally see so this opening to the Blockbuster CD was quite a surprise to me with the toe tapping violin and ethnic instruments and choir. This is one track that isn’t laid back but bright, well orchestrated. It reminds me of a scherzo or two I’ve heard in my day. What modern day compilation would not be complete without a selection from The Hobbit and this one is no exception with its battle style music and ethnic instruments. A hats off go to Bradley and Williams. Also included is the main theme to the film Inception, written by Hans Zimmer, Not to my liking at all the colorless lifeless theme is typical of many films of today.
I like this CD for a number of reasons. The material selection, orchestra arranging, a superior sound quality, and most of all the playing of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra who are becoming the premier pops orchestra in the world today. I’m not into doing the star rating system as some reviewers do but if I made an exception I would give this one the highest possible rating.