Picks of the Year: 2013

During the past year there were three recordings that met my criteria for Want List inclusion: a) little-known music of the past hundred years, b) in impeccable performances, and c) represented via the finest audio technology. The last criterion is not hard to achieve these days, but the first two are as elusive as they have always been.

The three composers are American, and range in age from 40 (Leshnoff) to 56 (Moravec), and all might be considered neo-tonal postmodernists. Leshnoff is based in the Baltimore area. His music, largely traditional in style, has only recently begun to surface on CD. The pieces I have heard—especially the pieces on this CD (reviewed in this issue)—display a soulfulness and sincerity that make a strong impression. The work that left me with the deepest impact of all his works that I’ve heard is the Double Concerto (violin and viola with orchestra). All the performances on this CD are excellent. I recommend it highly.

Paul Moravec is a considerably more established figure. I have included recordings of his music on previous Want Lists. He has developed an exuberant, mercurial compositional personality resembling that of no other American composer I know, although some may notice a peculiar and probably irrelevant similarity to the voice of Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu. What is especially appealing about this recent release (reviewed in 36:5) is that it features largely magnificent performances of four substantial orchestral pieces, including the Cello Concerto, one of the composer’s most impressive and deeply moving works.

A totally new discovery for me was the music of John Fitz Rogers, a versatile composer based at the University of South Carolina. Although he has a background in both jazz and rock, those genres are largely absent from the works on this CD (reviewed in 36:4), which chiefly follow the same sort of neo-tonal traditionalism as the two others discussed above. Also like theirs, Rogers’s music is expertly crafted, expressively meaningful, and meticulously performed. While strongly recommending this release, I look forward to hearing more of Rogers’s work, as well as acquainting myself further with the music on this disc. Leshnoff, Moravec, and Rogers are all composers whose music is rewarding on first hearing, and more deeply satisfying with greater acquaintance.

Although it was discussed at considerable length in 37:1 by me and four of my colleagues, and my own involvement in the production precludes my adding it to my Want List, I would just like to mention Naxos 8.573060, which features two symphonies for wind ensemble—one by Nicolas Flagello and the other by Arnold Rosner—that are essential listening for all enthusiasts of the wind band medium and its repertoire. Three additional pieces by Flagello are included as well, all in fine performances by the University of Houston Wind Ensemble, conducted by David Bertman.

LESHNOFF Double Concerto.  Symphony No. 1. Rush ● Wetherbee/Díaz/Stern, cond/IRIS O ● NAXOS 8.559670

MORAVEC Northern Lights Electric. Clarinet Concerto. Sempre Diritto! Montserrat—Cello Concerto ● Krakauer/Haimovitz/Rose, cond; Boston Modern O Project ● BMOP 1024

J. F. ROGERS Memoria DomiSonata LunarisBlue River VariationsOnce Removed ● Various chamber ensembles ● INNOVA 707 (65:54)

Picks of the Year: 2012

Here are the discoveries from the past year that made the biggest impact on me. I recommend them to all who enjoy worthy but lesser known music in great performances. Some may object that the piano music of Samuel Barber no longer deserves to be called “lesser known.” Well, we might say that it is “emerging” from that dustbin. The truth is that there have been many recordings of Barber’s piano music, but most of them—including those by some stellar figures—have been disappointing, as they fail to provide the optimum presentation of the music. But the young English pianist Leon McCawley (reviewed in 36:1) is one of the very few pianists to accomplish just that. I recommend his CD highly.

Music Makes a City ventures outside the Want List mold somewhat, as it is a DVD documentary (reviewed in 36:1). The subject is the story of the Louisville Orchestra. All who have followed American music since the LP era will be somewhat familiar with the role played by the Louisville Orchestra, but few are likely to be aware of the full context of the story. This documentary provides that context. American music aficionados of all ages will be sitting on the edge of their seats.

The German company cpo has been engaged in what appears to be a comprehensive survey of the orchestral music of the Polish-English composer Andrzej Panufnik. The performances have thus far been uniformly superb. But Volume IV (reviewed in 35:4) is the first to make my Want List, because it includes what are perhaps the two greatest of Panufnik’s symphonies: Sinfonia Elegiaca and Sinfonia Sacra, represented here in impeccable performances. Those who already have some interest in this truly unique composer have probably already acquired this recording. Others may want to hear some of the most deeply moving music composed in mid-20th-century Europe—especially those who have been enchanted by Gorecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs.

And, finally, I will mention a new release in which my own personal involvement precludes my including it on my official Want List: Though it is entitled “Flagello Conducts Flagello” (reviewed in 36:1), a more accurate title would be “Ezio Flagello Sings Nicolas Flagello,” as the disc comprises all the music by Nicolas that was recorded by his esteemed younger brother. Though some of the music has been issued before, the real draw is the never-before-released original version of The Passion of Martin Luther King. The program notes recount the changes that the oratorio underwent, and the reasons for these changes, but one of the results was that this studio recording, made in London in 1969, which featured one of the world’s great bass-baritones, was never released—until now. And as if the Flagello jinx can never be fully escaped, Naxos has released the recording on its “Historical Series” (8.112065), which means that it cannot be sold in the United States (a bit of a problem for a work that focuses on the words of Martin Luther King, wouldn’t you say?). Nevertheless, the Internet provides many ways around this stipulation, such as ordering it from a Canadian retailer.

BARBER Piano Music • McCawley  SOMM SOMMCD-108

MUSIC MAKES A CITY: An American Orchestra’s Untold Story • Brown, Hiler, directors  21C MEDIA GROUP

PANUFNIK  Symphonies: Nos. 2, 3, 10 • Borowicz/Berlin Konzerthaus O  cpo 777 683-2   

Picks of the Year: 2011

Of the new releases that came my way this past year there were two that met my criteria of rare but extraordinarily fine repertoire in excellent performances. One was the long-awaited first recording of the late (1926-2011) Lee Hoiby’s deeply moving 1970 opera Summer and Smoke (to be reviewed in the next issue), based on the Tennessee Williams play of that name. Hoiby was one of the finest contributors to the American operatic repertoire, although not all his offerings are of equal stature. Some aim to be pure entertainment, and some may find them a little silly. But The Tempest, based on the Shakespeare play, is magnificent, and made my Want List a few years ago. (And Hoiby’s last opera, Romeo and Juliet, remains unperformed at this time. I have, however, heard extended excerpts from a private reading, and hold out high hopes for its inevitable first production.) But at this point, Summer and Smoke is my favorite of his operas. Its themes—the presumed opposition between spirituality and sexuality, and the shame-based repression of the latter—are ideal and not infrequent subjects in opera, and Hoiby captures the aching, throbbing, yearning for fulfillment that serves as the underlying emotional core of the play with music ideally suited to such feelings. The performance, taken from a Manhattan School of Music production in December, 2010, which I attended, does quite a good job of realizing the work’s potential. While not the proverbial “last word,” it projects the qualities of the opera, while offering an opportunity for others—opera companies, singers, as well as listeners—to become familiar with this important and very moving work.

The Leighton disc was reviewed in 34:4. I have only recently become acquainted with English composer Kenneth Leighton (1929-1988), and am convinced that he is a truly important figure—a modern traditionalist comparable in stature to some of America’s finest contemporaneous purveyors of abstract modern symphonic music. I find his music thoroughly international in style, although some trace his lineage from Vaughan Williams’s Symphony No. 4. The disc noted here is but one of several recent releases that document Leighton’s stature convincingly. The Symphony No. 1 (1963-64) is a compelling work of considerable power and emotional intensity, while the Piano Concerto No. 3, though ostensibly “more relaxed and lyrical,” is similarly stern and harsh, but no less compelling. The performances on this recording are extremely impressive. 

HOIBY Summer and Smoke ●Osgood/Viemeister/Strommer et al./MSM Op Theatre ● ALBANY TROY 1272/73 (2CDs)

LEIGHTON Symphony No. 1/Piano Concerto No. 3 ● Brabbins/Shelley/BBC Nat O of Wales ● CHANDOS CHAN-10608

Picks of the Year: 2010

The one entry that for me looms above other recent releases is the first complete recording, now issued as a boxed set, of all eight performable symphonies by William Schuman, issued in time to mark the 100th birthday of this distinguished American composer and musical administrator. Rather than quibble over his precise place in the pantheon of American symphonists, I think that few would dispute the claim that he was among the five most important contributors to the American symphonic repertoire of the 20th century—a repertoire sorely in need of revival these days. Spanning the years 1941 through 1975, these eight works document the composer’s evolution from disciple of his teacher Roy Harris through his emergence as American music’s foremost public statesman. His Symphony No. 3 embraced the language and rhetorical approach of Harris, while far exceeding the latter’s capabilities in symphonic composition. His Symphony No. 10, subtitled, “American Muse” on the occasion of the American Bi-centennial, was a hearty congratulation to his fellow creative artists for the legacy they left, as a source of pride for subsequent generations. In between is a bounty of major works of considerable substance and expressive power, which together form a boldly individual identity—brash, assertive, and exciting. Not every symphony is a masterpiece, and Schuman’s music had its less inspired moments, and even less inspired works. Some of the weaker symphonies have long passages that seem to exert great effort to reach profound insights that finally elude the composer’s grasp. But taken together they document the growing sophistication of an eloquent creative voice. Each listener has his own special favorites among the symphonies: Mine are Nos. 3, 6, and 9—a selection that seems to be shared among many of the composer’s admirers, but not by all, by any means. In addition to the eight symphonies, the Naxos set also includes such works as the ballets Judith and Night JourneyPrayer in Time of War, the perennially popular New England Triptych, Circus Overture, and a few other fillers. (Judith, incidentally, is my choice as Schuman’s single most fully consummated work.)

Schuman’s music earned the enthusiastic advocacy of Leonard Bernstein, dating back to the time of the ill-fated Symphony No. 2. Over the years Bernstein proved to be Schuman’s most passionately exuberant interpreter, and his recorded performances of the Symphonies Nos. 3, 5, and 8—and others among his works as well—are generally held to be definitive. Bernstein’s mantle was then passed on to Leonard Slatkin, who has proven to be at least as effective a proponent, although he has not been afforded the opportunity to document so many of his interpretations on recording. For the past 25 years or so, as conductor (until very recently) of the Seattle Symphony, Gerard Schwarz has focused much of his energy on American orchestral music; his contributions in this area have been of inestimable importance, and have contributed greatly to a modest revival of interest in this area of the repertoire among listeners. Generally inclined to favor a rich, opulent sound, and a relaxed sense of rhythmic progression, Schwarz has often seemed at his best in the works of neo-romantic composers like Howard Hanson. As I listened to the first release in his Schuman cycle, my expectations were modest. But I was most pleasantly surprised. While Schwarz does not, as Bernstein did, immediately reach for the music’s rhythmic electricity or for its sonic bombast, his readings are cleaner and more precise, with fuller, more carefully balanced sonorities, yet with no lack of energy or excitement.

Naxos’ American Classics series will certainly hold a pre-eminent position in the discographic history of American music. Their contribution has more than equaled such distinguished efforts of the past as Edward Cole’s series on MGM, the Hanson/Eastman/Mercury series, and the Louisville Orchestra series. My fervent hope is that Schwarz’s relationship with Naxos continues despite his departure from Seattle.

SCHUMAN Symphonies: Nos. 3-10 et al. orch. works ● Schwarz/Seattle SO ● NAXOS 8.505228  (5 CDs)

Picks of the Year: 2009

This year, with only a bit of stretching, I was able to find four CDs that met my criteria of “neglected masterpieces,” rendered in brilliant performances. John Corigliano is not a particular favorite of mine, but he is unquestionably a highly gifted composer. Although much of his music depends on gimmickry of one form or another, A Dylan Thomas Trilogy (reviewed in 32:5) is one major work that appears to reflect some of his deepest and most introspective creative thinking. Its composition occupied Corigliano on and off for nearly forty years, from a setting of Fern Hill written when he was 23, with additional segments added periodically during the years that followed, until he finally arrived at a satisfactory completion during the late 1990s, when he was about 60. Corigliano has always felt a strong kinship with the Welsh poet, and so the trilogy represents something of a spiritual/poetic autobiography. Not only are its individual sections quite moving in their own rights, but the multiple perspectives resulting from their origins at different times in the composer’s life add a fascinating additional dimension. 

Ordinarily I would refrain from including the Giannini CD (reviewed in 32:6) on my Want List because a) I wrote the program notes, and b) I do not consider one of the works to be quite at the level of “masterpiece.” However, I decided to make an exception in this case. For one thing, although the Piano Concerto is an ambitious work of more than 40 minutes duration, and although it is a notable curiosity, having enjoyed a triumphant premiere at the hands of Rosalyn Tureck in 1937, with no record of any subsequent performances, and although it is performed here with fervent commitment, brilliant virtuosity, and exquisite sensitivity by the extraordinary Rumanian-American pianist Gabriela Imreh, the work—like much of Giannini’s music from the 1930s—is quite conventional in its adoption of a middle-European late-romantic musical language, and over-laden with excessive repetition. So why am I making this exception? Because most of the reviews that have appeared since its release have been far more generous in their assessments of the concerto than I, while dispensing with the symphony in a few words indicating that it’s good too. But Giannini’s Symphony No. 4, a fruit of the composer’s maturity, by which time he had established an identifiable creative voice of his own, is worth far more than such perfunctory acknowledgment. It is one of the great neo-romantic symphonies of the 1950s—the decade during which (contrary to the usual textbook overview) the American symphony reached its fullest and most generous fruition—worthy of standing alongside the major works of Barber, Hanson, and Creston. Not only does the work boast a gorgeously luxuriant slow movement, but it is also a masterpiece of symphonic construction, in which each theme is derived from the main theme of the first movement—which is, in turn, derived completely from the interval of the fourth (perhaps in recognition of its being a “fourth” symphony)—while embracing all twelve tones of the chromatic scale. In short, it is one more example demonstrating that music with immediate accessibility need not be simplistic or otherwise flimsy in its construction.

Lee Hoiby is one of the few traditional American neo-romantics still actively composing, and the preceding year has witnessed a number of important new recordings within the genres in which he has produced his most distinguished work: opera and song. His adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest (reviewed in this issue) has been produced several times since its premiere in 1986. Its April, 2008, performance at Purchase College in New York State, which I had the pleasure of attending, was released this year on the Albany label. This was a marvelous presentation, beautifully performed and brilliantly staged; I can attest to the fact that the production has been magnificently captured on this recording. I would also go so far as to assert that Hoiby’s adaptation is one of the great Shakespearian operas. Gripping right from its opening moments, this is a work that should not be overlooked by anyone with an interest in American opera. 

Hoiby has also composed about a hundred song settings, which have been championed by many of our leading singers, most notably Leontyne Price. Two CDs devoted to them have appeared during the past few months (and are reviewed in this issue). Both releases are fine samplings of Hoiby’s contribution to the American art song literature, although neither is wholly without some minor vocal shortcomings. I have a slight preference for the Naxos disc, simply because the presence of two singers—soprano Julia Faulkner and baritone Andrew Garland—rather than one offers a bit more variety for the ear, while the composer’s own renditions of the piano accompaniments lend a self-evident authority. The 22 songs themselves display an exquisite hypersensitivity reminiscent of Samuel Barber’s fine contributions to the medium; the best of them reveal the sort of beauty that upon first hearing seems to echo some faint, distant memory. Although the recording is superb, honorable mention must be extended to the other recent release, which features soprano Ursula Keinecke-Boyer (Albany TROY1102) in a program of 19 songs, eight of which are also found on the Naxos disc.

CORIGLIANO A Dylan Thomas Trilogy • Slatkin/Allen,Jackson,Tessier/Nashville Ch & SO • NAXOS 8.559394

GIANNINI Symphony No. 4. Piano Concerto • Spalding/Imreh/Bournemouth SO • NAXOS 8.559352

HOIBY A Pocket of Time (22 songs) • Falkner,Garland/Hoiby • NAXOS 8.559375

HOIBY The Tempest • Murphy/Balonek,Davey,Webber,Benevento,Caputo et al./Purchase SO • ALBANY TROY 1106/07 (2 CDs)

Picks of the Year: 2008

Once again I come up with fewer than the prescribed number of selections. I hasten to add, however, that this is not a reflection on the quality of new releases, but, rather, attributable to my own scattered musical involvements. This year I offer one “official” selection, but this one is absolutely a no-brainer: Geoffrey Burleson’s historic, masterful, pioneering survey of the twelve brilliant piano sonatas of Vincent Persichetti, reviewed by both Peter Burwasser and me in Fanfare 31:6. Both my colleague and I pretty much agree, and our reviews speak for themselves. This set is an indispensable acquisition for all listeners interested in American music, American piano music, 20th-century piano music, … It is simply indispensable. Once you hear it, you will never again refer to Persichetti as “the guy who wrote all that band music.” One more point: In my review of this set I mentioned that I was involved in a project to record this same music for Naxos. That project has been canceled (for reasons unrelated to the Burleson recording), so listeners who were planning to wait for a less expensive alternative are advised to grab the New World release. 

Although my own involvement as producer prevents my listing it as a Pick of the Year selection, I would like to direct readers to Naxos 8.559347, also reviewed in 31:6. This release comprises two “symphonic masses”—orchestral works that follow the structure of the Ordinary of the Roman Catholic Mass. The two composers are Nicolas Flagello and Arnold Rosner, and, despite their shared source of inspiration and the gross structural similarity of the two works, they are worlds apart stylistically. However, having been familiar with the two for more than thirty years, I believe that they are both stunning compositions that will appeal greatly to listeners who enjoy 20th-century romanticism. They are conducted on this recording by John McLaughlin Williams, who has proven to be an inspired—and inspiring—interpreter of neo-romantic music. And the National Radio Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine plays like a world-class ensemble for him. 

I have one more item to mention: It wasn’t released during the past year, and it isn’t even available at all right now. But it is my biggest discovery of the past twelve months: Bernard Herrmann’s operatic adaptation of Wuthering Heights. Herrmann regarded this as his magnum opus, and worked on it from 1943 until 1951. He wanted desperately to see it mounted, but this did not happen within his lifetime. However, he did preside over a recording of it in 1966, which was released as a set of LPs first on Pye, then on Unicorn in 1972. It was reissued on CD by Unicorn/Kanchana during the early 1990s, but that set is no longer available. I remember when it was first issued on Unicorn, but at that point I wasn’t interested enough in Herrmann to pursue it. I was finally introduced to it only recently by a friend, and was simply blown away by it! So much atmosphere, so much intensity, so much irresistible vocal writing! Nothing I’ve ever heard by Herrmann comes close to the depth of expression found in this work. I do not know who currently owns the rights to this recording, but, considering that Herrmann is taken far more seriously as a composer today than he was thirty or forty years ago, I can’t believe that a reissue of this opera wouldn’t be snapped up by thousands of enthusiasts.

PERSICHETTI Piano Sonatas: Nos. 1-12 • Burleson • NEW WORLD 80677-2 (2 CDs)

Picks of the Year: 2007

Once again I’ve been unable to come up with five recent CDs that meet my criteria of great, little-known 20th-/21st-century music, definitively performed and expertly recorded. However, I hasten to emphasize that I do not attribute this to any diminution in quality or quantity of new releases, but, rather, to my own involvement in a variety of musical activities that have limited my ability to stay abreast of all the recent recordings—of which, I know, there are many—within my area of repertoire interest. 

Bloch’s String Quartet No. 1 and his Piano Quintet No. 2 derive from approximately opposite ends of his career, more than 40 years apart. The Quartet No. 1 is an expansive, passionate post-romantic work nearly an hour in duration. This Laurel release captures what is without question the work’s best modern performance to be recorded. Originally released on LP in 1982, this is its long-awaited first appearance on CD (reviewed in 30:5). It is coupled with an equally fine performance of the Piano Quintet No. 2, Bloch’s last major work—a terse, energetic statement no less passionate and intense than the early quartet. This reissue replaces Laurel’s previous CD release of that work, which is now out of print.

And then we have the first-ever complete commercial recording of Howard Hanson’s masterpiece, the opera Merry Mount (reviewed in this issue). (Naxos did release a documentary recording of the opera’s 1934 world premiere by the Metropolitan Opera, with Lawrence Tibbett and Göta Ljunberg [not Gladys Swarthout, as I incorrectly stated in my review] in the leading roles. But that recording is not allowed to be sold in the United States, for copyright reasons, and the sound quality is barely listenable.) Those listeners who love the familiar orchestral suite from the opera, along with Hanson’s other popular favorites, are sure to find the complete work to be a treat. And this Seattle performance, which took place in 1996, in honor of Hanson’s centennial, represents the work handsomely, and is the natural capstone of Gerard Schwarz’s valuable, comprehensive survey of the composer’s orchestral music.

And then there is one more recent release to mention, but this is one in which my own involvement as producer prevents me from presuming any real objectivity: Artek AR-0036, which comprises the first-ever performance/recording of Nicolas Flagello’s 1956 Violin Concerto, played brilliantly by soloist Elmar Oliveira. I believe that this work warrants consideration alongside the likes of the Barber Concerto, the Bernstein Serenade, and, perhaps, the Korngold Concerto. It is accompanied by seething, brooding orchestral interludes from two of Flagello’s operas, and orchestrated versions of six passionate songs, sung beautifully by Susan Gonzalez. The National Radio Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine is under the direction of John McLaughlin Williams, an excellent conductor with a sympathetic understanding of American neo-romanticism. In their reviews (in the previous issue) two of my colleagues expressed some reservations that are not unjustified, but I believe that those listeners who have enjoyed previous Flagello recordings will be comparably pleased with this one.

BLOCH String Quartet No. 1. Piano Quintet No. 2 • Pro Arte Quartet/Karp • LAUREL 820

HANSON Merry Mount • Soloists/Schwarz/Seattle SO/Ch • NAXOS 8.669012-13 (2 CDs)

Picks of the Year: 2006

This year I was able to arrive at only four recent releases that met my criteria of great, little-known recent repertoire, beautifully performed, and superbly recorded. However, my abbreviated list is probably limited more by my own insufficient exposure than by a paucity of worthy releases. An all-Moravec CD appeared on my Want List last year. This recent Naxos release of music by the recent Pulitzer Prize-winner is perhaps even more rewarding, as the 42-minute Time Gallery is an extraordinary work-one of the composer’s best, as far as I know. Moravec manages the rare feat of writing music that sounds up-to-date and individual, but is also pleasingly accessible. I suspect that he will prove to be one of the most important American composers of his generation. 

William Schuman is, of course, one of the most important American composers of a previous generation, perhaps one of the three greatest American symphonists of the 20th century. Although his music has not received much attention since his death in 1992, Naxos appears to be attempting to remedy this neglect by releasing new recordings of all ten of his symphonies. Four of them have been released as of this writing. The disc listed here (reviewed in 29:1, 29:5) will hopefully draw new admirers to this distinguished composer’s body of work. 

Joseph Schwantner (another Pulitzer Prize-winner, as was Schuman) has suddenly been the beneficiary of some auspicious recording activity. This fine recent release from Hyperion offers exquisite performances of four of his most appealing works. Three of them feature soloists, who ably execute their responsibilities. Like Moravec, Schwantner is another non-doctrinaire, post-modern individualist whose highly evocative music has broad appeal, even beyond the usual “classical music” audience.

Patrick Zimmerli, born in 1968, is the youngest composer cited here. Although he is active as a jazz musician, his two piano trios (reviewed in 29:1, 29:4) are highly traditional in style, harking back to similar works by Brahms. However, Zimmerli speaks through his models with such urgency and authenticity that the results are irresistibly compelling, while their impact is enhanced by these virtuosic performances.

In closing I must mention two new releases featuring the music of two Italian-American traditionalists; both would definitely be on my Want List were it not for the fact that I had some involvement in their production. One (Naxos 8.570130, reviewed in 30:1) offers the complete music for wind ensemble by Vittorio Giannini. Although his Symphony No. 3 is a much-beloved work that has enjoyed multiple recordings, his other works for this medium are as good, and at least one-Variations and Fugue-is even better; indeed, it is one of the masterpieces of the genre. The famed University of Houston Wind Ensemble offers meticulous performances, under the direction of Tom Bennett. The other new release (Naxos 8.559296) features three major works, never before recorded, by Nicolas Flagello. These are the Piano Concerto No. 1, played by Tatjana Rankovich, who has already given us brilliant recordings of the composer’s other two piano concertos; a dramatic scena for soprano and orchestra, called Dante’s Farewell, sung gorgeously by soprano Susan Gonzalez; and Flagello’s last work, the Concerto Sinfonico for saxophone quartet and orchestra. In the latter work, Kynan Johns draws superb playing from the Rutgers Symphony Orchestra, joined here by the New Hudson Saxophone Quartet. In the other two works, the National Radio Orchestra of Ukraine is conducted by John McLaughlin Williams, an eloquent advocate of worthy, lesser-known repertoire whose reputation is growing rapidly as his recordings draw increasing attention.

MORAVEC The Time Gallery. Protean Fantasy. Ariel Fantasy • eighth blackbird/Sheppard-Skaerved/Shorr • NAXOS 8.559267

SCHUMAN Symphonies 4, 9. Circus Overture. Orchestra Song • Schwarz/Seattle SO • NAXOS 8.559254

SCHWANTNER A Sudden Rainbow. Angelfire. Beyond Autumn. September Canticle • Soloists/Litton/Dallas SO ? HYPERION CDA67493

ZIMMERLI Piano Trios Nos. 1 and 2 • Yoo/Mermagen/Novacek • ARABESQUE Z6785

Picks of the Year: 2005

As far as I can recall, this is the first year that I actually had difficulty narrowing down my list of most significant new releases to five. I’m not sure how to explain it, but I am certainly glad that the much-observed and –discussed dwindling of the audience for classical music has not yet resulted in a corresponding tapering off of new releases featuring unusual repertoire. 

One most welcome entry is the Chandos recording (reviewed in 28:5) of Samuel Barber’s gorgeous opera Vanessa. This recent release appeared on the heels of a perfectly adequate Naxos recording of the same work. Hopefully, the latter, budget-priced, will draw new listeners to the opera, while the more expensive Chandos release provides an extraordinary performance, brilliantly recorded, to satisfy already-convinced enthusiasts who want an alternative to the almost-50-year-old Metropolitan Opera version.

The Griller Quartet’s fervently committed 1954 recordings of the first four of Ernest Bloch’s five string quartets (reviewed [most likely] in 29:1) have long been unavailable, and have achieved something like “legendary” status. Now re-issued on a modestly-priced two-disc set of CDs, these performances will presumably draw new listeners to these great works, still barely known to either the listening audience or the academic musicological world. The Griller performances offer persuasive evidence that Bloch’s quartets are comparable in stature to those of Bartók and Shostakovich. Indeed, the Quartet No. 2 is probably Bloch’s greatest work.

On the other hand, Bloch enthusiasts may want to pursue the first recording available in the United States of the rarely heard orchestral rhapsody Helvetia: The Land of Mountains and Its People (Kleos KL5134), performed by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, under the direction of David Amos. Further enhancing the value of this recording is the presence of two really obscure, but intriguing piano concertos by Isidor Achron, lesser-known younger brother of Joseph (whose music isn’t that well known either, except to violin specialists). 

Alan Hovhaness died in 2000, at the age of 89, leaving behind a legacy of more than 500 works—a legacy that even the composer’s most fervent admirers will concede is “uneven” at best. Pianist Martin Berkofsky is a most effective protagonist for this music, and for his new Black Box release has selected some of Hovhaness’s most unequivocal masterpieces, which he performs—sometimes enlisting the additional participation of other pianists—with a deep understanding of the aesthetic premises underlying these works. This is an indispensable release for all admirers of the composer.

Recipient of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize in music, Paul Moravec is the first such winner in the last few years whose selection seems warranted. Tempest Fantasy, the prize-winning work, is included on this brilliantly performed Arabesque CD (reviewed in 28:5), along with several other equally-rewarding pieces. Moravec’s is a compositional voice to follow: unmistakable for that of any other composer, yet clear and straightforward enough to be readily enjoyed.

The music and reputation of Vincent Persichetti, one of the supreme masters among American composers, have been in something of a hibernation since his death in 1987. Suddenly a spate of new recordings featuring his works has appeared, and will be discussed at length in a forthcoming issue. Perhaps the most significant of these is Albany’s new release of three symphonies (two of which have never been recorded before) on a two-CD set priced as one. The performances by David Alan Miller and the Albany Symphony are solid and sympathetic, while the recording is of revelatory clarity. 

Better known than Persichetti’s symphonies are his works for wind ensemble, which are among the cornerstones of the genre. Highly esteemed band director Eugene Corporon presents seven of these works in meticulous performances by the North Texas Wind Symphony and the Cincinnati Wind Symphony (GIA CD-627; available from www.giamusic.com); this release complements David Amos’s overlapping survey of Persichetti’s works for band featuring the winds of the London Symphony Orchestra, to be reissued imminently on Naxos American Classics.



BARBER Vanessa • Soloists/Slatkin/BBC SO/Ch • CHANDOS CHSA 5032(2)

BLOCH String Quartets: Nos. 1-4 • Griller St Qt • DECCA 475 6071

HOVHANESS Lousadzak. Two-Piano Concerto. Mihr. Vijag et al. • Berkofsky/Krimets/Globalis SO • BLACK BOX BBM1103

MORAVEC Tempest Fantasy. Mood Swings. B.A.S.S. Variations. Scherzo • Krakauer/Trio Solisti • ARABESQUE Z6791

PERSICHETTI Symphonies: Nos. 3, 4, 7 • Miller/Albany SO • ALBANY TROY771/72

Picks of the Year: 2004

Another year has gone by, the mainstream classical music world continues to degenerate into terminal fluff, the number of retail stores selling classical recordings continues to dwindle, yet exciting repertoire continues to appear in superb recorded performances in sufficient quantity to tax most listeners’ budgets, not to mention their capacities to assimilate new material. Here is my list of recent offerings, all of it easily accessible via Internet sources, if not in neighborhood stores, presented in the belief that each of these entries will delight most listeners who seek new discoveries that embrace traditional musical values.

At 42, Jennifer Higdon is the youngest composer to appear on this list. Her music, presented here under the auspices of her longtime advocate Robert Spano, displays an appealing, though contemporary, surface, not unlike the recent work of Michael Torke, but with a greater sense of spiritual and emotional depth. This release is highly recommended to those interested in keeping up with the most talented composers arriving on the scene (see Andrew Quint’s interview and review in Fanfare 27:5).

Until recently, the name of Robert Kurka, whose career ended with his premature death from leukemia at age 36, had largely disappeared from notice. But this recent Cedille release (reviewed by me, probably in this issue) presents cogent evidence that he was among the most distinctive creative voices of his generation, and might have developed into one of the most significant, alongside such contemporaries as Ned Rorem, Peter Mennin, and Benjamin Lees (see below), had he lived longer. 

At 80, Benjamin Lees is three years younger than Kurka would have been. He has been the beneficiary of a number of fine recent recordings that confirm his stature as one of our most potent compositional voices, although his stern, uncompromising music has never achieved anything approaching widespread popularity. With three of his symphonies and an additional work of substance, Albany’s two-CD set (reviewed in Fanfare 27:6) is perhaps the most valuable representation of his music on recording.

Just a few years younger than Lees, Robert Muczynski has lived to see much of his work enter the active repertoires of both chamber music and solo piano literature; indeed, most of his music can now be found on current recordings in fine performances. This latest Centaur release (reviewed in 27:4) is perhaps the most impressive of all, featuring riveting performances of some of the most engaging and compelling American chamber music of the latter part of the 20th century.

Julián Orbón is the only composer on this list who was not from the United States (although Lees was actually born in China). However, a student of Aaron Copland, this Hispanic figure wrote music that often sounds American. Regardless, his work is remarkably ingratiating, and this recent Naxos release brings together three of his most appealing pieces, in excellent performances. Listeners who sample this recording are not likely to be disappointed.

HIGDON Concerto for Orchestra. City Scape • Spano/Atlanta SO • TELARC CD-80620

KURKA Symphony No. 2. Serenade. Music. Julius Caesar • Kalmar/Grant Park O • CEDILLE CDR-90000 077

LEES Symphonies: Nos. 2, 3, 5. Etudes • Gunzenhauser/Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz; Dick/Spano/Texas Fest O • ALBANY TROY-564/65 (2CDs)

MUCZYNSKI Piano Trios. String Trio. Gallery • Davidovici/O’Neill/Enyeart/Wodnicki • CENTAUR CRC-2634

ORBÓN Three Symphonic Versions. Symphonic Dances. Concerto Grosso• Valdés/Asturias SO • NAXOS 8.557368