Tag Archives: Naxos

Finzi’s Cello Concerto and a Few Other Things You Shouldn’t Miss from Another Overlooked British Composer

Gerald Finzi is virtually unknown on this side of the Atlantic, and to the extent he is, it’s probably because of the semi-accurate film Hillary and Jackie which attempted to chronicle the complex relations (let’s leave it that) between him, the du Pré sisters, and Daniel Barenboim. Be that as it may, the man himself was brilliant a composer whose life, and thus his output, was cut tragically short by incurable illness (parallels to the cellist du Pré sister are inevitable and if nothing else, a strange twist of fate).

Foremost among his works, which run the gamut and include a fair amount of choral and vocal works which don’t interest me at all is his cello concerto, Yo-Yo Ma’s premiere recording (with Lyrita in 1979) — a version that certainly still holds up but really doesn’t give us much in terms of the mature artist Ma would become, or the fullness ofF7B16B27-0154-45CE-8482-E0BAE0CF19D7_1_201_a expression this relatively short but enormously expressive work contains. With Handley at the helm, a master of the British style, this does come off a bit too low-key for my taste, sounding at times like it was a Vaughan Williams concerto (let’s leave the cow rolling in the hay out of it) rather than having more of the vim and vigor we get from Raphael Wallfisch, whose Chandos record recorded seven years later with the same man conducting, shows what can happen when a more mature soloist puts his stamps of a work, and a A494F155-169A-42E6-ADA6-BC14E25EBECE_1_201_aconductor allows him or her to drive the performance. Here we have infinitely more energy, literally from start to finish, and in this work there’s really not a wasted bar. It’s entirely more alive than the Ma version, and the Chandos sound is brighter and fuller than the Lyrita. It’s a pity Ma has never returned to the work; one wonders what the mature cellist would produce rom this score today, with its full range of mood and emotion, presenting so much room for expression, not just from the ensemble but in from the solo passages themselves.

In that regard, it’s actually a much more recent CD version, recorded by Tim Hugh — Jackie du Pré’s pupil no less — on Naxos in 2001 with Howard Griffiths and the Northern Sinfonia, which totally surpasses both Ma and Wallfisch.712oUg6I6oL._SL1097_ It’s slightly quicker overall, and by far the most energetic of the three versions, full of life and leaving one feeling uplifted, despite the melancholy that is undeniably there. Again, one has to wonder how much of this feeling for the work came via du Pré, who to my knowledge never performed the work, though she certainly could have; it was written and published years before her years of performance were forced to conclude. 

The Naxos CD also features versions of two of Finzi’s single-movement piano concertante works that are similarly superb, the Ecologue (a short and mostly inward-looking, sad piece; and the more expansive Grand Fantasia and Toccata). The former is probably my favorite 006654CA-6CE5-46AA-8779-E06BF5AD33A5_1_201_aof the two, which were both originally intended as a larger concerto but the composer himself decided to split them and complete them as separate works; the Ecologue has a more consistent tone, not just because of its brevity but also because the longer piece seems to be a bit of a stylistic mashup which at times feels like its evoking Constant Lambert, Rachmaninoff, and/or Bach, let alone the singular voice of the actual composer. That shorter piece has two competitors on vinyl: Peter Katin with Handley again on Lyrita (1977) who lends it a distinctive and direct feeling, but more notable Howard Shelley with Richard Hickox (1987) on EMI — of course, because Finzi is another one of those composers who for whatever reason apparently only British labels have any interest in. Shelley’s version is far preferable, but it’s really just a filler at the end of an LP mainly dedicated to the Piano Concerto and choral Amore langueo by Howard Ferguson. Next to Ferguson, Peter Donohoe is equally as941D3356-A55E-4332-BAF7-D1CCD00FC6CC_1_201_a eloquent, if even perhaps a bit more so; this pianist seems to have a knack for taking works like this, underperformed and underrecognized, and raising them to the next level, very much leaving one wondering why they aren’t staples of the genre. (Donohoe accomplished this same feat in his justly famous recording of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2, which most critics, and artists, write off as a totally uninteresting sequel to the great First.) What benefits Donohoe in the Finzi — as with Hugh in the Cello Concerto — is the much more involved, integrated, and dynamic playing of the ensemble, who are not just accompanists, but partners is the performance. If one partakes of CDs, or online streamers like idagio, this disc is the one to get; on vinyl there are equivalents, but this is really a desert island CD for me, and I don’t have many!

Not to be unfair to Shelley, here is a live performance with the London Mozart Players in which his overall more tranquil vision of the piece is a bit more vivis than the EMI record:

Speaking of which, it’s also interesting that some of Finzi’s shorter symphonic works, notably the orchestral suite after Love’s Labours Lost has no full competitor on vinyl; Boult, again on Lyrita, recorded three of the numbers from Boughtonthe suite, but not (inexplicably) the most memorable piece, the first one. Here there is absolutely not competitor to William Boughton and the English String Orchestra on Nimbus. The performance and acoustic are phenomenal; unfortunately for us vinyl lovers, this recording, still available on CD, was made right after the label had done away with vinyl; his earlier records of English works (Elgar and Vaughan Williams) are very much worth having. It does seem one has to go to idagio for the Love’s Labours, it’s not to be found on YouTube; the same seems to be the case for Alan Hacker’s Clarinet Concerto. You do have to register, but it’s free and very much worth it, there is no comparable curated archive of classical recordings anywhere else on the web, period. The Clarinet Concerto on that disc is also without peer; the Lyrita, coupled with the Ecologue mentioned above, is totally lackluster in comparison. And Finzi knew how to write for the instrument, which long ago I used to play; among his jauntier and less weighty works are the Five Bagatelles for clarinet and piano, best heard on Chandos disc with de Peyer (who else) available on late vinyl or CD as part of an enjoyable anthology of English clarinet works. 


Fauré’s Violin Sonatas

Fauré was not the most prolific of composers but his music is of the highest caliber, particular the intimate chamber works; delicate and sensual in the iconic Gallic style of the time, with both memorable shorter melodies (the Romances sans Paroles are under appreciated pianistic gems on par with anything from Brahms or even Schubert); Dolly and the Masques et Bergamasques are pure joy; on the other handthe Requiem is an angelic sine qua non, an antidote to the gloom foretold in many others of the genre, most infamously in the words of a contemporary British critic who disdained the pieces for being a “lullaby of death.” As a student of Saint-Saëns and precursor to Ravel and the Impressionists, Fauré bridged styles and generations in the most interesting and rewarding ways — conservative in form, to some sensibilities, yet very free and modern stylistically.

Here I consider four of the handful of records of his two Violin Sonatas, which present both exemplars of these 100_9973characteristics and variety in their performances ranging from the earlier versions by Zino Francescatti and Robert Casadesus (Columbia 5049, rec. 1953, available on CD from Sony). On my 6-eye copy the mono sound is resilient and pristine, with the violinist’s distinctive precision gliding along with little romantic dramatism. The tunefulness dominates rather than the musicians’ personalities, and the effect is pure delight in the first Sonata, written by a young man (aged 31) still under the sway of his mentor Saint-Saëns, who very much approved. The Sonata No. 2, written 40 years later, still possesses the melodic qualities of the first but is less of a token of the flourishes of the Parisian Belle Epoque than of more equivocal cultural, chaotic environment of 1917; “autumnal” to borrow a rather overused musicological term. Casadesus is an equal in these performances, driving the music as much as the soloist he accompanies. Both men were proficient in a wide range of repertoire, and often performed together; this record is in a sense their perfect collaboration.

It’s no surprise (and also somewhat regrettable) that Fauré’s music is mostly favored by his countrymen. The first record was made by Thibaud and Cortot in 1932. Similarities in pacing and style are very evident, and the partnership dynamic with Cortot is noticeable, Francescatti’s leaner, more crystalline tone deliver a different feel overall, however — despite the obviously expanded dynamic range. One can find the vinyl on the old HMV/COLH LP series and on CD from EMI. A presumably 78rpm transfer of the first Cortot 1st movement from the Sonata No. 1 is on YouTube here:

Probably the record held in highest esteem is that from Arthur Grumiaux and Paul Crossley on Philips (9500-534, rec. 1978), Grumiauxwhich features the unmatchable technique and drama of Grumiaux’s instrumentalism in both Sonatas, with unmatched sonics from the height of the late analogue era. (The YouTube clip below concludes with his recording of the Franck sonata with Sebok as accompanist.)

A fuller tone and a more Romantic style (do I detect occasional double-stops?) position Grumiaux into revealing counterpoint with Francescatti, detracting nothing from either. Crossly is also more of an accompanist here than an equal partner in the performance. Available on CD in two versions, this first from Philips and a second from London — clearly some kind of cross-liscence from Polygram, here, though I can’t vouch for the sound on either.

A later rendition comes from the accomplished French violinist Pascal Amoyal with Anne Queffélec on Erato (71195, rec. 1979). The tone here is overall more subdued, more Brahmsian — not dark, to be sure — but less ebullient. An illuminating contrast

worth considering alongside the above mentioned discs. Amoyal recorded the works again with another master of French pianism, Pascal Rogé for London/Decca in the 1990s (Rogé’s solo Fauré album is a must-have). Likewise, Amoyal’s 1992 Harmonia Mundi CD of the Brahms Sonatas, with Pascal Devoyon, is among the finest on record, adapting the French sensibility to Brahms rather than the other way round. The Erato Amoyal has not been reissued on CD.

Lastly I mention the only more modern, CD-version of the Sonatas I favor on par with these vinyl records, from the Korean Dong-Suk Kang also accompanied by Pascal DevoyonKim on Naxos. From the same CD, below is a clip of Kang performing Fauré’s Romance for Violin and Piano, a good example of the tone/style I’m referring to (can’t seem to find the Sonatas for free on the web).

Kang has won recognition for recordings of works by Elgar, Sibelius, and Grieg and his approach reminds me most of the Elgar Violin Sonata in its most robust performances from Nigel Kennedy (Chandos ABRD-1099, and CD) and as well as Maxim Vengerov on Teldec.

By way of comparison, here is the first movement from Kennedy’s Elgar Violin Sonata.

Kang’s Naxos acoustics are the most open and spatial of all the recordings sampled here, and there is nothing to apologize for with the digital sonics. Kang is perhaps the robust of all soloists here, and Devoyon is more animated than he was with Amoyal; he too is a highly accomplished in the French repertoire of this era with many fine records (the Fauré cello sonatas with Isserlis, as well as the Saint-Saëns violin sonatas, and chamber works by Chabrier).

I’m by no means trying to be comprehensive here, just covering what I’ve got on vinyl, and the Kang, from about the time I generally stopped buying CDs.There are a few Fauré Sonata records I’m omitting, including the early Ferras/Barbizet on HMV (can’t abide his vibrato) and Bobesco on vinyl, Mintz on CD, and a very few others who have ventured here.

Joaquin Rodrigo’s “Per la Flor del Lliri Blau”

Rodrigo, probably the most famous of Spanish composers after Manuel de Falla, had a lot more to say than Concierto Aranjuez, his famed guitar concerto written in 1939 — he kept writing into the 1990s. The piece most commonly coupled with Aranjuez, Concierto para un Gentilhombre dates from 1954, sure proof that he was a long-term figure upon the musical stage. His A la busca del más allá (In Search of Things Beyond) — included on some of the recordings I cite later in this post — was actually commissioned by the Houston Symphony Orchestra in 1976 in the spirit of space exploration.

But back to Lliri Blau, a tone poem hearkening to a totally different era, based on a medieval Valencian Spanish legend of a king and his avenging sons. The sonics are cinematic in an early Hollywood sense, befitting a score written in 1934. The piece won Rodrigo one of his earliest recognitions as a composer and set the stage for his guitar concertante works which would establish him as a unique figure in Classical composition. At the time Lliri Blau was composed he was under the tutelage of Paul Dukas, who in his own way bridged the French traditions of Romantic and Impressionist. Lliri Blau could perhaps be thought of as a Spanish translation of Debussy and Ravel, but also predicting the neoclassical romanticism of Stravinsky, say, in The Fairy’s Kiss. 

There are very few recordings of Lliri Blau, which is a shame; but as is often the case when a single work comes to dominate the public reputation of an artist (as much as I love Aranjuez) the performed and recorded repertoire suffers. 51meqhNYRKL._SS280Naxos has contributed a superb version in Vol. 6 of its complete Rodrigo edition, with the Castile and Leon Symphony Orchestra led by Max Bragado-Darman. (Bragado-Darman founded the orchestra in 1991 and now is M.D. in Monterrey, California; he also spent time in Louisville, and from the Monterrey programming continues to focus on 20th Century works.) The 2003 sound is rich and full, the reading dramatic and cinematic — but think Korngold and Erroll Flynn more than John rodrigo6Williams and Indiana Jones. The other version available on CD is Vol. 1 (interesting) from Sony’s 1997 European-only Rodrigo Edition, this time with the Valencia Orchestra and Manuel Galduf, more of an academic, who studied under Markevitch. The digital sound is comparable to Naxos, but the playing is notably more aggressive both in tone and tempi — clocking in a full two minutes under the Castilians. Despite the Valencian connection to Lliri Blau’s source material, the Castilians on Naxos make a clear choice.

As far as I can tell, the only version on vinyl is a 1983 EMI/Angel record from Enrique Bátiz and the London Symphony, available on CD today in a compilation. It is a let down in just about every way. IMG_1718Usually I’m fairly sypathetic to digital recordings on vinyl, but this one fits all the stereotypes my audiophile friends always rattle off: “dry,” no “space” around the sound, no “warmth” and so on. These qualities are absolutely essential for Lliri Blau, especially in its haunting primary motif. For all of the LSO’s cinematic reputation, it sure sounds like they were phoning it in on this record. (It’s also the slowest of all versions, dragging on in a probable lame attempt at romanticism.) The Gramophone devoted but a single expository sentence to the piece in its review at the time, and one can understand why.

It’s a real shame that no record exists of this piece from the legendary conductors of the music of its era: Ansermet in particular, must have programmed this at some point; Paray? Martinon?

Digging around on the Web it wasn’t entirely surprising that on YouTube the one standout performance of the piece comes from Venezuela’s Simon Bolivar orchestra, unfortunately in this case not conducted by Dudamel — I wonder whether he ever led them in it, or if he’ll try it with the LAPO; it would make a perfect fit.  The performance here is dated 2013, and the conductor uncredited; among the two lonely comments one asks in Spanish who he is. The performance is very strong, and as always it is informative to see how the story unfolds in performance. While the quality of sound and skill is an obvious tick or three below the two Spanish orchestras on CD, the sense of musical line, of flow, which I consider one of Dudamel’s strongest suits — connecting the phrases in a way that makes paragraphs out of sentences — is perhaps better here, something he inculcated into this most remarkable of student orchestra. N.B. on YouTube one also sees a few wind orchestra performances of the piece. The composer did create a winds-only score, as this was apparently popular among Spanish community bands of the era.


Bloch’s Concerto Grosso No. 1

I discvovered this work about ten years ago in a rather unlikely place: at 30,000 feet en route from Washington, D.C., to Austin, Texas. I usually eschew the hodgepodge Classical in-flight radio channel in favor of my own library, but I think my batteries must have gone out. I was captivated immediately by the piece’s neoclassical symmetry, its bright lines and transitions from eery, atonal dirge to buoyant, litlting dance. The particular version was from one Angela Duczmal and the Polish Amadeus Chamber Orchestra. It took some time to track down the CD — I think it was already out of print 10 years ago, and it remains so today. It’s a 1994 recording, brilliantly captured with a satisfying resonance that in particular allows the piano obbligato to echo over the orchestra.

All I’d ever heard from Bloch before were the cello concertante works, which I’ve never responded to and still strike me as impossibly glum. Not so with this piece. I went on to explore other recordings, especially once made the transition to vinyl.

The usual pick of the critics is Howard Hanson’s early stereo version on Mercury Living Presence, and the first press often fetches $50 or so on eBay. I acquired a copy a few years ago for rather less than that at a local used record shop, and found it disappointing for both the sonics (cramped) and the performance (rigid). Especially compared to Duczmal, who seems to be positively enjoying every moment of the music making. I suppose that for some, neo-classical should imply an impersonal idiom (I’m thinking of late Stravinsky, for example) but why not give the music more life? Why not play this little piece as though it was a masterwork of the highest order? I think it was Robert Layton who wrote about the ability of some conductors to do just this (he was talking specifically about Stokowski and Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini).

So Hanson went into the eBay pile. I later gave him a second shot when I came across the Golden Imports re-issue, some of which I’d found to have improved sonics. Not so here; as I recall it just sounded streamlined. And the performance still struck me as impersonal.

As it happens, I’ve discovered a new favorite, in keeping with my recent forays into the mono era. I recently picked up a bunch of mono LPs at a thrift shop, including the Karajan disc I last blogged about. They were all in pristene condition and play unusually well for the era.

On this occasion the new favorite is Kubelik and Chicago, on pre-Living Presence Mercury, MG-50027, recorded 1952. The Hindemith is good, but the Bloch is superb. The interpretation has all of the life and vigor of Duczmal, but with a bigger band and a decidedly more Romantic reading, the piece comes off with even more drama and, especially in the soaring finale, an unforgettable sense of exaltation. The bad news: It is unavailable on CD in the US — Naxos has issued it in the rest of the world on their historical label, which I suppose there are creative ways to obtain. There are a few copies of the original issue up on eBay for reasonable amounts, but I know from past experience that finding tolerable copies from the days of the sapphire (or metal) needle is well-nigh impossible. I lucked out here: The sound on my copy is rich, resonant, without any hint of surface noise. It appears from this Kubelik discography site that there are several later Mercury iterations, but I can’t vouch for the sound. If I were more technologically advanced, and had the equipment, I’d try to create an MP3 of this and put it on YouTube. For now, I’m blogging….and that’s more than some thought would ever happen! Kubelik conducts Bloch and Hindemith

Beni Mora

I discovered Holst’s Beni Mora through the superb Naxos recording with David Lloyd Jones, available in segments on YouTube, which has astounding sonics that match the drama of this underappreciated masterpiece. The orchestral color is every bit as vivid as The Planets. The offerings on vinyl are limited, with Boult’s Lyrita the best I’ve heard. Lloyd-Jones still wins…can we get Naxos to press a copy on 180 gram? While we’re at it, can we reach Edward Said from the world beyond and have him write the liner notes? I don’t have a copy of Orientalism, but Amazon look-inside tells me there are zero hits for Holst. But surely this would have interested him, given his love of Classical music and its role in culture.

Currently listening to a 10″ mono Beni Mora from Sargent and the BBCSO. It’s an Odeon label, dated 1958, and probably only exists in mono. The only discography I can find, at Wikipedia, doesn’t indicate stereo/mono. Sargent’s always seemed a bit bland to me, especially compared to his fellow Brits Boult or certainly Barbirolli.

His Beni Mora is interesting, somewhat slower than either Boult or Lloyd-Jones, but also a bit jauntier and rhythmic. Still, this one goes into the eBay auction pile. If you’re a vinyl-only person, go with Sir Adrian.