Ginastera: Cello Concertos (CD review)

Mark Kosower, cello; Lothar Zagrosek, Bamberg Symphony Orchestra. Naxos 8.572372.

The back of the Naxos jewel box says "Alberto Ginastera was one of the most admired and respected musical voices of the twentieth century, who successfully fused the strong traditional influences of his national heritage with experimental, contemporary, and classical techniques." That may be so, but it made me feel rather uninformed because I could only remember hearing a single piece of music by the man, an old recording of the Harp Concerto with Zabaleta. The present disc hopes to rectify that situation for a lot of us classical-music fans.

Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983) was an Argentinean composer who studied with Aaron Copland and among whose students is tango-composer Astor Piazzolla. What surprised me in reading about Ginastera is that a rock track familiar to me, Emerson, Lake & Palmer's "Toccata," the group adapted from Ginastera's First Piano Concerto. Serves me right for not reading the album's liner notes. It's remarkable how things in this world are so intertwined, yet we may not even know about them.  Anyway, Ginastera wrote his two Cello Concertos in 1968 and 1980, and it's a pleasure to have them here.

The disc begins with the Cello Concerto No. 2, Op. 50, composed by Ginastera as a tribute to his wife, the cellist Aurora Natola. Written in four movements, each section bears the lines of a poem to help the listener better understand the music. It's all very sensitive and evocative, the composer having explained earlier in his career that "art is first perceived by our senses. It then affects our sentiments and in the end awakens our intelligence.... A work which speaks only to the intelligence of man will never reach his heart."

Cellist Mark Kosower plays with a light touch, never overstating the music even when it becomes somewhat melodramatic, as at the end of the first movement; nor does Maestro Lothar Zagrosek overdramatize Ginastera's poetic moods. Still, the music often sounds to my ears like most typical modern pieces, with a plethora of sonic effects, mainly percussive, in slow but harmonious succession, without much regard to a discernable melody. However, the third movement, a nocturne, struck me as most touching, Kosower's cello wistful and yearning.

Ginastera called his Concerto No. 1, Op. 36, a neo-Expressionist work. It's a darker, more ominous-sounding piece than No. 2, written in a traditional three-movement concerto arrangement. I'm not sure just what the composer was after in the first movement, but the music can be downright spooky. The scherzo is more rambunctious, an energetic section with a vigorous rhythmic pulse that Kosower and Zagrosek exploit with cultivated restraint. It's quite a lot fun, actually, and does indeed appeal to the senses above all. I might have done without the final movement, though, which apparently Ginastera intended as a plunge into madness, the chaos eventually fading into silence. I suppose this is an appropriate ending to the work, and parts of it are undeniably brilliant. The overall effect, nonetheless, seems to lose its welcome by the halfway point.

Naxos recorded the concertos in Bamberg Congress Hall, Bavaria, the Concerto No. 1 in 2009 and the Concerto No. 2 live a year later in 2010. The live recording is very close-up, helping to eliminate any possible audience noise but not offering much in the way of natural hall ambience. In compensation, we do get excellent clarity and dynamic impact.

In the Concerto No. 1, also recorded very closely but not live, we find slightly more dimensionality, with just as much punch. In any case, both recording styles sound fine, and they fit the music nicely.


Beethoven: Violin Concerto (CD review)

Gidon Kremer, violin; Neville Marriner, the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. Newton Classics 8802064.

Somehow, this one escaped me when Philips first issued it some twenty-five years past. But now that Newton Classics have given us this 2011 rerelease, I've had the chance to hear what I missed all those years ago. Not that I was missing a seriously must-have performance; still, the recording has its merits, along with a serious drawback.

Violinist Gidon Kremer is, of course, a gifted musician, and Sir Neville Marriner and his Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields have been at the top of their game for over fifty years. They provide a generally fine interpretation of Beethoven's Violin Concerto in D, Op. 61, in all regards but one.

The point of controversy in this recording is Kremer's choice of cadenzas, those improvisatory passages where the composer expects the soloist to elaborate in his or her own virtuosic way, usually on a phrase or two from within a movement. Sometimes the soloist creates the cadenza, sometimes the soloist borrows a cadenza from someone else, and sometimes a composer will write out the cadenzas for the soloist to follow. In the case of the Beethoven Violin Concerto, the composer never wrote any of the cadenzas in the work, with most violinists going with those of Joseph Joachim or Fritz Kreisler, Jascha Heifetz using a combination of his own and Joachim's, Rachel Barton Pine using her own personal creations, and so forth. Which brings us to Kremer, who uses cadenzas written for him in 1975-77 by his friend, the Russian composer Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998).

Schnittke's cadenzas are, in a word, odd. From what I understand, Schnittke wanted to combine elements of traditional classical and Romantic music with those of modern, experimental music, the resulting passages hitting a somewhat jarring, distracting note in the midst of Beethoven's more-familiar territory. When the cadenzas appear--a major one near the end of the first movement, a brief transitional one at the end of the second movement, and a final one near the end of the last movement--they come in stark contrast to everything around them.

On a more positive note, Beethoven's expansive first-movement Allegro opens conventionally enough, the ASMF sounding a bit smaller than its more imposing rivals and Marriner adopting moderate, relaxed tempos. When Kremer enters, he, too, maintains the pleasantly genial mood of the introduction. Neither the soloist nor the conductor ever tries to force Beethoven's grand design on the listener, so the music is never overwhelming, just relatively gentle, refined, and comforting. At least, it is until the entrance of the first cadenza, which casts a kind of bizarre shadow over the rest of the music.

Left to their own devices and using a fairly orthodox cadenza in the second movement, Kremer and Marriner produce a sweetly affecting Larghetto that leads to an airily lilting finale. Unfortunately, in the final segment again the mood gets shattered by the intrusion of Schnittke's seemingly inappropriate twentieth-century cadenza. Ah, well; I'm sure some folks will appreciate and grow to love the unusual, often eccentric qualities of these interruptions; I didn't, although I can certainly respect Schnittke's earnest intentions.

Recorded in London in 1980, the Philips sound is characteristically warm and spacious. There is a very wide stereo spread involved, with more-than-adequate depth to the orchestral field and a reasonably broad dynamic range. The violin tone is as smooth as the rest of the production, with strong bass support, so the whole recording comes across as easy on the ears, if not as transparent as some of its competition.

Of minor concern, Newton Classics provide only the one work on the disc, about forty-four minutes long, which seems rather short measure even if it duplicates the original Philips disc. They might have found something to couple with the Concerto, if only for the sake of appearances.


Classical News of the Week: May 29, 2011

Frederick Historic Piano Collection News

The folks at the Frederick Historic Piano Collection inform us that Chinese pianist Yuan Sheng, there last fall to record Chopin with the 1845 Pleyel piano, asked permission to get Edmund Michael Frederick's article "A Different Perspective on Piano History" from their Web site, translated into Chinese for publication in China.

Not only did the article appear in the February, 2011, issue of the Chinese magazine Piano Artistry, subtitled in English "Inspecting the Piano History from Another Point of View," a few pages later Yuan Cheng's own article, "Inspirations from the Early Piano," describes his experience as a pianist, rediscovering the works of various composers in the context of pianos in the Frederick collection, from the composers' own lifetimes. In July, when Yuan returns to the United States for the International Keyboard Institute and Festival in New York, he will record a video interview of Edmund Michael Frederick, with illustrative selections on various pianos, for a Chinese Public TV broadcast series premiering in the fall.

The staff of the Frederick Collection are looking forward eagerly to the eventual release of the two-disc CD album Yuan recorded there. He is one of the finest interpreters of Chopin in the world today. Their Web site has a rave review of Yuan's recent Chopin recital:

Spring Symphony at "Bach and Beyond," Vancouver Symphony Orchestra

The Vancouver Symphony's "Bach and Beyond" programs at the Chan Centre offer a niche series for a substantial audience that prefers music written before the Romantic and Modern eras. As such, the chamber orchestra programs inevitably raise a number of performance decisions, and become a laboratory for exploring style.

Certainly this year's season-ender featuring conductor/harpsichordist Kenneth Slowik had to wrestle with three distinct issues: how to present Bach on modern instruments; how to deal with a high Classical symphony; and, perhaps of greatest interest, how to present a work from the early Romantic era with chamber orchestra forces.

Slowik is artistic director of the Smithsonian Chamber Music Society and has directed the Baroque Performance Institute at Oberlin. No stranger to the VSO, he is deservedly building a following. His reading with just eight performers of Bach's Fifth Brandenburg Concerto, featuring VSO associate concertmaster Joan Blackman and principal flute Christie Reside, was stylish and elegant.

Haydn's Symphony #94 (The "Surprise") opted for humour and vitality. With about 40 players (almost exactly the same number Haydn used himself when the work was premiered in 1792), the winds/strings/percussion balance was altered significantly. Slowik's flexibility and understanding of Haydn's wit made for a decidedly amusing interpretation: It may well be the first time I've heard actual guffaws at the eponymous "surprise" in the second movement.

However, the real surprise of the program was Robert Schumann's Spring Symphony. It is conventional wisdom that Schuman's orchestral works have their challenges and flaws; many conductors don't give them the time of day. Slowik's approach was telling, and one feels that his years of lieder work with singers informed his extraordinarily poetic approach. He's certainly prepared to take risks—big ones— and, given some of the infelicities of Schumann's scoring, there were moments that courted disaster. But Slowik's sense of the emotional truth of the work, and his obvious joy in its exhilarating drive, coupled with a genuine feeling of spontaneity, made for a delightful performance that vindicated Schumann's idiosyncratic symphonic vision.

--David Gordon Duke, Vancouver Sun

Philharmonia Baroque Expands Distribution with Harmonia Mundi

May 26, 2011, San Francisco, CA – Philharmonia Baroque Productions announces distribution deals with Harmonia Mundi that will bring its releases to the UK, Germany, and Austria. The debut CD release, a live recording of Berlioz: Les Nuits d'été and Handel arias featuring mezzo soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, entered the Billboard Classical Albums chart at Number 7 for the week ending May 21.

Harmonia Mundi distributes all releases in the United States and now also in the UK, Austria and Germany as part of a three-disc distribution arrangement for Europe. The next title, a collection of three Haydn symphonies conducted by music director Nicholas McGegan, is scheduled to be released on Tuesday, June 14. The third of the initial group of CD releases this year will be a studio recording of Vivaldi's beloved Four Seasons, as well as three other concerti, featuring principal violinist Elizabeth Blumenstock.

For a complete biography, visit

Spring Sale at HDTT

The audiophile folks at HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers) have announced a Spring Sale, offering 15% discounts on all of their music products. Although the sale does not include HQCD Blanks or Symposium Acoustic Products, it does include all of their CD transfers and downloads.  The sale ends June 5, 2011:


Schubert: Symphony No. 9 (SACD review)

Philippe Herreweghe, Royal Flemish Philharmonic. PentaTone Classics PTC 5186 372.

The Ninth Symphony of Franz Schubert (1797-1828), the "Great" and final numbered symphony, which the composer dated 1828, has an oddball history because, of course, he didn't really write it in 1828, and it probably wasn't really his final symphony. The odds are he wrote it much earlier than the year of his death, which probably makes little difference since, as with the rest of his orchestral music, he never published any of it, anyway. The Ninth didn't even see a public performance until 1839, a full eleven years after Schubert's death. Yet today it is one of the basic components of the classical repertoire. Such is fate.

It's nice to see conductor Philippe Herreweghe giving it a shot, especially since Herreweghe just finished up his Beethoven cycle and what better a work to follow it up than the Schubert Ninth, with its obvious Beethoven connections. Herreweghe is one of those conductors who perhaps never pops to mind as among the absolute greatest conductors of our day but who never disappoints with his recorded performances. While he's neither foursquare nor revolutionary, he never takes an easy route, either, as this recording demonstrates.

In the opening movement, Herreweghe creates the proper dimensions, meaning he plays it big and grand. At the same time, it is not overpowering, the conductor maintaining Schubert's characteristic lilt in its gait. When the Andante section turns into a full-fledged Allegro, Herreweghe isn't hesitant about cutting loose. Yet despite there being much energy here, it is not always at the service of the music. It's not exactly like the famous Krips-Decca recording, which continues to set the benchmark for total delight in the work, making each transition seem perfectly natural. Herreweghe does his best in a vigorous interpretation of the first movement that doesn't quite capture all of the composer's robust charm.

In the second-movement Andante, however, Herreweghe seems more at home, taking the combined march and lamentation at a brisk and lively pace. It's a neat trick to make what can be a dirge into something more exciting. Perhaps, though, the conductor does miss a little something in terms of emotional charge by doing so, and maybe the shifts into the middle section's sweeter tones and back are a bit abrupt as a consequence. It's a small matter.

The third-movement Scherzo sounds a touch heavy to my ears, losing some of the Schubertian bounce in its step but making up for it with a good deal of passion. Then Herreweghe produces a finale of truly "Great" proportions, the transitions and tempos by now sounding just right. The very end, the closing note, does appear a bit odd in the way it cuts off, but it's the only distraction.

Although this may not be a Schubert Ninth for the ages, Herreweghe certainly offers for the most part a well-considered interpretation and a well-produced one.

Recorded in Queen Elizabeth Hall, Antwerp, Belgium, 2010, the sound on this PentaTone hybrid stereo/multichannel disc is ultrasmooth, warm, and a tad soft, at least played through two speakers as I played it. Perhaps the small degree of midrange veiling I heard disappears when four channels come into play, I don't know. Nevertheless, the timpani shine through with clarity, and the dynamics are wide.  Impact is good, too, so while some of the orchestral sound seems a tad tame, other portions impress one with their quick transient response. If you've heard previous recordings by Herreweghe on PentaTone, this one is unlikely to let you down.


Rihanna, Britney kick off invigorated Billboard Awards

After five years of dormancy, the Billboard Music Awards were invigorated Sunday with a major dose of star power.

Rihanna got the show off to a steamy start, wearing a skimpy leather outfit for her hit song "S&M," and was joined at the end of the number by Britney Spears, who came into view on a remix on the track.

Taylor Swift won the evening's first award, as top album artist, at the back the multimillion sales for "Speak Now."

"The impact of an album is all resolute by the fans," she told the audience. "You've just given me another reason to be completely in love with you."

Other award winners built-in Justin Bieber (digital artist) and the Black Eyed Peas (top duo/group).

Beyonce conventional a special Millennium Award for her career achievements: The 29-year-old phenomenon was lauded in a video by an array of legends and luminaries, as well as Stevie Wonder, Barbara Streisand, Bono, Lady Gaga and First Lady Michelle Obama.

"This is a moment I have to immerse in because it's gonna be -- and it is -- one of the best moments of my life," said Beyonce after getting the award from her mother, Tina Knowles. Beyonce also did her new song, "Run the World (Girls)."

This year marks the Billboard Awards' rebirth. The Billboard Awards had been a yclip since 1989, but gave out what came into view to be its last award in 2006. This year, the show was brought back.

It was held in Las Vegas, broadcast live on ABC and hosted by "The Hangover 2"' star Ken Jeong.

The Billboard Music Awards are given out to music's most popular artists. The finalists and winners are strong-minded by their rank on the Billboard charts and their "social and streaming activity."

Rihanna is the top finalist, competing in 18 categories. Among the awards she's up for take in top artist, top female artist, and top radio songs artist.

Eminem's name appears in 16 categories, counting top artist. He's also vying for top male artist as well as top social artist.

Rachel Zoe sparks the dazzling 10carat diamond ring

Some new mothers are happy with maybe a good night's sleep or a bunch of flowers after giving birth.

But for celebrities like Rachel Zoe, 39, they take delivery of a whole lot more in the form of a 'push present'.

Rachel Zoe was presented with a huge 10-carat Neil Lane diamond ring from her husband Rodger Berman.

The couple celebrated the birth of their son Skyler Morrison six weeks ago and are enjoying in being new parents.

But Berman it seems that wanted to give Zoe amazing special to thank her for giving birth to their son.

And at nearly $300,000 - it is a a very special gift certainly. Skyler weighed in at 6lb 12oz which means the 'push present' was more than a carat a pound.

She flashed the enormous ring yesterday while celebrating her first Mother's Day with Berman during an outdoor meal.

Live Music helps disabled children to socialize

SINGING, dancing, drumming and playing the guitar to children with disabilities helps perk up their social and motor skills, Australian therapists have found.

For one hour each week, Queensland University of Technology's Kate Williams and a team of music therapists would sit on the floor with a group of immobilize children under five years old, joined by their mothers.

"We have a guitar and we use our voice ... and bring along a whole lot of instruments that are easy to get to and motivating," said Ms Williams.

"We're using some familiar, early childhood repertoire - Twinkle Twinkle and Baa Baa (Black Sheep) and what not - to get them at ease and using their hands for doing events.

"But we also compose and write a lot of our own songs because we want to be targeting particular aspects of the family relationship."

The Queensland University of Technology-based researcher interviewed the mothers of the 201 participants, who had a variety of disabilities including autistic disorders, Down syndrome and cerebral palsy.

The parents said they had learnt to use music to sidetrack and calm their children, and noticed their own mental health had improved.

Ms Williams also made clinical observations over the course of the study.

"We were observing really positive changes in parenting behaviors and the relationships between the parents and children," she told AAP.

"It's very easy to see what these children can't do and where they're lacking in their development but, I think we found in music therapy sessions, parents are really confident to see what (the children) actually can do with motivation.

"Even children who couldn't talk would vocalize.

"The focus is really strength, based on what people can do."

Taylor Swift to Close Down CMA Music Fest

Taylor Swift will bring the drape down on this year's CMA Music Fest.

Swift has been added to the Sunday lineup of the Nightly Concerts at LP Field for the June 9-12 fair in Nashville, Tenn.

Fans in Swift's hometown will get to see a bit of the live show the 2009 Country Music Association performer of the year has been dispersal around the globe on tour this coil. Swift has been concerned in some way with the festival every year since 2006.

Sunday will be a runaway success night with Miranda Lambert, Blake Shelton and Darius Rucker among the performers on the agenda.

Other performers scheduled Thursday through Saturday include Jason Aldean, Brad Paisley, Zac Brown Band, Rascal Flatts, Lady Antebellum, Keith Urban and Sheryl Crow.