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Evenings with the Orchestra
Evenings with the Orchestra
by Hector Berlioz
Edition: Paperback
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant! Absolutely, positively brilliant!, December 13, 2003
Two hundred years ago this week, Louis-Hector Berlioz was born. This, then, is a time for me to comment on a few of his works, some of them "favorites by acclamation" and others simply those in which I find special merit.

When Berlioz died, in April, 1869, an obituary in the Musical Times read, in part, "...there can be little doubt that he will be remembered by his able and acute contributions to musical criticism than by any of the compositions with which he hoped to revolutionize the world."

Anyone familiar with Berlioz's "Memoirs" already knows that he could write with flair, and often with a trenchant sense of humor as well. And, while no one these days takes that Musical Times obituary notice seriously, in terms of evaluating his compositional vs. his critical contributions to music, it is true that Berlioz was a significant contributor to the art of musical criticism. He lived and wrote during a time when the feuilleton (an essay often bathed in scathing wit) was the main in-print vehicle for criticism in the arts, and he was one of its most able and knowledgeable practitioners, using the medium for rendering his critical judgements on the musical matters of the day. (As a side note, credit for the feuilleton is often - but mistakenly - given to Heinrich Heine, the German poet, who wrote many such essays when in Vienna. But Heine had earlier been a friend of Berlioz's while in Paris, and it seems clear - at least to this writer - that the feuilleton migrated from Paris to Vienna, with Heine as its means of transport.)

"Soirées de l'Orchestre" (the original French title of these works) can be variously translated as "Evenings with the Orchestra" or "Evenings in the Orchestra." The latter seems more accurate and appropriate, notwithstanding the expertise of Jacques Barzun, one of a handful of true Berlioz experts working today: Berlioz - in the form of an alter ego for purposes of commenting on concert and opera performances - places himself IN the orchestra, as a participating musician in the evenings' events. He utilizes this "second party" vehicle, with some connective narrative, to tie together a number of his most famous feuilletons that "reached print" in the arts journals and newspapers of his day.

Never one to mince words, Berlioz makes clear his personal preferences of composers he knew, and either admired or despised. Of the former (including, inter alia, Beethoven, Gluck, Mozart, Spontini and Weber), his feuilletons would invariably speak to the strengths of these composers. On the other hand, of the latter (including, inter alia, Bellini, Cherubini, Donizetti and Rossini), an evening in the orchestra while performing such works provided him the opportunity to take imaginative flights of fancy as a means for writing about anything BUT the music (which he personally abhorred).

It is in these latter feuilletons that Berlioz hits his stride. And what an imaginative stride it is! Edgar Allen Poe and H. G. Wells (to name just two), had they been aware of Berlioz's writings, would well know that they had a worthy competitor in terms of his ability to write tales about the bizarre and the fantastic and, even, science fiction. But with a "gallows" humor that neither Poe nor Wells possessed. And this gallows humor, it turns out, is - at its best - screamingly hilarious. Two examples will have to suffice, lest I run over my allotted space.

Consider the Eighteenth Evening, during which a German opera (likely one by Meyerbeer) for which the pit musicians have little interest, so that a series of tales is spun amongst them, concluding with "The Piano Possessed," a sly and barely disguised dig at Felix Mendelssohn. The piano takes on a life - and even an afterlife - of its own while thirty-one pianists in a competition are required to play the Mendelssohn work, one after the other.

Better yet, consider the Twenty-Fifth Evening, arguably Berlioz's crowning achievement in the genre and titled "Euphonia, or the Musical City." This might well be called "Hector's Revenge," as he uses the feuilleton to settle a few scores with Camille Moke, a lady - and musician - to whom he had once been engaged and who had betrayed that engagement with the able assistance of her mother. The three characters, so barely disguised that Berlioz might well have used their proper names, are interwoven in a tale of intrigue and betrayal that is beyond fantastic and bordering on the morbid. Berlioz's alter ego exacts his revenge on the two women in a most poetic, if equally grotesque, way. And you'll laugh your way right through to the final word.

There is much about these Soirées that is autobiographical, and those familiar with Berlioz's life and times will likely not have much difficulty finding the autobiographical needles in the various haystacks that make up these Evenings. At the same time, the genre of the feuilleton permits Berlioz the luxury of commenting on matters musical (and otherwise) in a wholly unique way and style. And he had no shortage of style.

This is truly a "lost art"; no one seems to have been successful in duplicating Berlioz's ability to combine trenchant humor with critical commentary since his time. In modern times, only the name of Norman Lebrecht comes to mind, and he is far too buttoned down to challenge Berlioz in the genre. And more's the pity, now that we live in the time of Andrea Bocelli, Charlotte Church, Sarah Brightman, Russell Watson and - sakes alive! - Britney and JLo. I think Hector would have a field day with the likes of these.

Bon anniversaire, M. Berlioz!

Bob Zeidler


Berlioz: Messe Solennelle
Berlioz: Messe Solennelle
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A unique glimpse into the Berlioz of the future., December 11, 2003
Two hundred years ago today, Louis-Hector Berlioz was born. This is a day for me to comment on a few of my favorite performances of his works, some of them "favorites by acclamation" and others simply those in which I find special merit, enough so that they are frequently in my CD players.

Never mind that Hector Berlioz destroyed this student work. It is our good fortune that a copy of the manuscript survived these efforts, and moreover ended up in the hands of John Eliot Gardiner, who directs his Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique and the Montiverdi Choir plus soloists in this premiere recording. (The story of the discovery of the manuscript, believed - or at least hoped - by Berlioz to have been destroyed, is very well set out in the comprehensive booklet notes, as are Gardiner's comments on the work and "getting it to work.")

This is truly "Hector in the raw," the work of a 20-year-old Paris Conservatory student barely trained in the essentials (a burden he would carry around, on and off, throughout his life, thanks to his critics, not to mention his own proclivities toward writing music having few if any harmonic or rhythmic antecedents and which others couldn't fathom). The work clearly has its weaknesses: structural, harmonic, melodic, rhythmic and melodic immaturities simply flood the work, and it is little wonder that, after only two performances, Berlioz designated the work for the scrapheap.

But either he kept good notebooks or he had total recall. So much of this work showed up later (suitably transmogrified, of course, but far from totally disguised) in several of his mature masterpieces: the Symphonie fantastique, the Requiem, the Te Deum, and even his mid-period opera Benvenuto Cellini. Anyone familiar with these works will have little trouble identifying precursor sources throughout the Messe Solennelle. And even the "bad bits" that never did get recycled into later works have their own share of visceral excitement and primitive charm, despite all the weaknesses noted.

The performance, by Gardiner and his troupe, could hardly be more authentic short of partaking of time travel and actually being at the true premiere. The Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique is a true period-instrument ensemble (and sounds it), not only for its insistence on the reproduction of "standard" instruments of the time (low-tension stringed instruments, valveless trumpets and horns, etc.) but also for its incorporation of instruments (which Berlioz in the main plucked out of the brass bands of the time) that have now been obsolete for nearly as long as the work has been around: bass brass instruments that include the ophicleide, the buccin and the serpent. And what a joyful noyse this ensemble makes!

The vocal soloists are uniformly fine. Gilles Cachemaille, the bass, is an old hand at singing Berlioz, and Donna Brown (soprano) and Jean-Luc Viala, while not known to me before this recording also acquit themselves very well.

Recorded now a decade ago, in Westminster Cathedral (to best simulate its initial premiere venue, Saint-Roch in Paris), the sound is certainly among the best for such a type of venue: a great sense of acoustical space, but not buried in excessive reverberation. Very nicely done!

Not long after this recording came out, Bernard Holland, writing in the New York Times, said, "Mr. Gardiner seems to have the early franchise on the 'Messe Solennelle'." As far as I know, this is still the case a decade later. And perhaps that is as it should be; the last thing we need is to have another conductor come along, take a close look at the score, and try to "improve" it. Best that we hear this "Hector in the raw" as it was meant to be heard, and not all "prettified up."

Bon anniversaire, M. Berlioz!

Bob Zeidler


Véronique Gens ~ Berlioz - Les Nuits d'été · La mort de Cléopatre
Véronique Gens ~ Berlioz - Les Nuits d'été · La mort de Cléopatre
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Gens gems, December 11, 2003
Two hundred years ago today, Louis-Hector Berlioz was born. This is a day for me to comment on a few of my favorite performances of his works, some of them "favorites by acclamation" and others simply those in which I find special merit, enough so that they are frequently in my CD players.

Some might think that, at just a hair over 61 minutes, this CD is small measure. Not so! These are some of Hector Berlioz's most important non-operatic vocal writings.

And they are gems as sung here by Véronique Gens. While normally thought of as a Baroque specialist (and I have a recording of Rameau's "Dardanus" which testifies to her expertise in that repertoire), Gens is more than "reasonably close to perfection" in these Berlioz works.

The two main works on this CD - Les nuits d'été and La mort de Cléopatre - are hardly strangers to the vocal repertoire. Neither has lacked recordings that many Berlioz lovers treasure. For Les nuits d'été alone, I number at least three - by Regine Crespin, Janet Baker and Jan DeGaetani - among such "treasures."

Gens, a lyric soprano, brings a sense of lightness and air to this song cycle that is, while different than, say, Baker's or DeGaetani's approach, nonetheless effective in its own right. Her relative lightness works very well in "Vilanelle," but she has more than enough vocal range and "adaptability" so that the more poignant songs in the cycle, such as "Le Spectre de la rose," are suitably captured as well: her expressive range, and her perfect knowledge of the language, are just fine for singing a song cycle for which Berlioz's directions as to voice-casting were not exactly cast in stone.

La mort de Cléopatre is an early Berlioz work, one of four such cantatas that he had submitted for the Prix de Rome competition. Put simply, he was too original for the competition committee to deal with him, and this cantata (the third of the four) was the one for which he simply threw his arms up in the air and wrote what he felt like. (Only on the fourth try, with a by-now almost forgotten cantata named Sardanapale, did he "play by the rules" and win.)

This cantata is every bit as revolutionary - and as bold - as Berlioz' most famous work, Symphonie fantastique, which shares approximate date of creation with it. It is full of original touches both harmonic and rhythmic (touches, in fact, that would contribute to labeling him as "wayward," "undisciplined" and even "untrained"). Gens readily shifts gears here, demonstrating a dramatic and tragic side not present in Les nuits d'été. The closing pages - as Cléopatre lays dying from the asp's bite - are rendered with chilling and moving effectiveness.

The remaining three songs, originally for voice and piano, are skillfully orchestrated by this most innovative orchestrator (who literally "wrote the book" on the subject). Particularly appealing is "Zaïde": with its castanets and its Spanish flair, it looks forward to Bizet and the Carmen that was yet to come, decades later.

There is a minor mislabeling error on my copy of this recording. "Zaïde," actually the final (10th) track (and properly identified in the booklet), is listed as track 8 on the package and on the disc as well. But no one will have any difficulty identifying "Zaïde" from the brief description above.

Gens shows a real affinity for this music, despite her French Baroque repertoire background. I'm not sure that any of the singers earlier mentioned, with the obvious exception of Regine Crespin, could have done as fine a job overall. Truly "Gens gems." And the orchestral support, with Louis Langrée leading the Lyon Opera Orchestra, is superb, as are the recorded sonics. Finally, the package is topped off with excellent and detailed booklet notes.

Bon anniversaire, M. Berlioz!

Bob Zeidler


Requiem / Prologue to Mefistofele / Te Deum
Requiem / Prologue to Mefistofele / Te Deum
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27 of 28 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A superb modern performance of the Berlioz Requiem., December 11, 2003
Two hundred years ago today, Louis-Hector Berlioz was born. This is a day for me to comment on a few of my favorite performances of his works, some of them "favorites by acclamation" and others simply those in which I find special merit, enough so that they are frequently in my CD players.

Berlioz's Requiem is, with Giuseppe Verdi's "Manzoni" Requiem, one of the two great dramatic renderings of this text; works that have stood the test of time. If the Verdi work is the more frequently performed and operatic Requiem, the Berlioz is the more "forward-looking" and not at all lacking in its own drama and grandeur.

One needs to go "back into the vaults" to find a recorded performance of this essential Berlioz work that matches Robert Shaw's stunning version in its balance of sublime beauty and visceral excitement, not to mention its spacious sonics, all the way back to the much earlier performances by Charles Munch and Sir Thomas Beecham in fact. And then, of course, one pays a fairly heavy penalty in terms of sonics.

Despite the resources required, the work hardly lacks for "decent" recordings that are more modern than the Beecham and Munch ones, by such esteemed Berlioz specialists as Sir Colin Davis and Charles Dutoit, as well as by James Levine, Lorin Maazel, Seiji Ozawa and Sir Andre Previn. But "decent" is just not good enough; some of these fail to catch fire in one way or another, and none of them have the choral excellence of this Shaw recording under consideration. Only the Dutoit (in an otherwise curiously unengaging performance) can come close to matching Shaw in terms of recorded sound. (In fairness, I confess to not yet having heard John Eliot Gardiner's recording. It may, in its HIP [historically informed performance] way, be the equal of this Shaw recording.)

Shaw finds the appropriate dynamic contrasts in the work, from the gentlest supplications of the "Sanctus" and "Agnus Dei" to the most violent outbursts of the "Dies irae" and "Rex tremendae." The sound - and the perception of depth and spatial effects - is of demonstration quality, particularly in the "Tuba mirum" section of the "Dies irae," for which four brass bands are disposed at the extreme corners of the recording venue at Atlanta Symphony Hall.

The blazing originality of Berlioz shines through everywhere, not just in the instrumental (and choral) outbursts. The otherworldly effect in the "Hostias" of having flutes and trombones separated by many octaves, to represent the immensity of the distance from Heaven to Hell, is captured perfectly, right down to the trombones' pedal-tone growl (just one of many Berlioz innovations). John Aler, arguably our very best "American French tenor," is splendid in the "Sanctus," and the Shaw chorus, needless to say, is one that is seldom - if ever - topped.

John Aler can also be found on a Delos recording of another Berlioz work in a similar vein, the Te Deum (conducted by Dennis Keene), a recording I recommend highly. Regrettably, Robert Shaw never committed the Berlioz Te Deum to disc; it would have made a perfect filler. (This might be because of the special antiphonal "call and response" requirements between orchestra and organ that Berlioz takes pains to specify. Aler/Keene had the benefit of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine for their recording, a perfect venue for the work.)

But the two fillers in this boxed set - the Prologue to Arrigo Boito's Mefistofele and Verdi's Te Deum - which earlier filled a Telarc LP - are nonetheless excellent "fits" for the Berlioz Requiem.

I can remember, a quarter-century ago, when Norman Treigle "owned" the role of Mefistofele while he was at the New York City Opera (an ownership that was subsequently taken over by Samuel Ramey upon Treigle's unfortunate death by suicide). If John Cheek isn't quite the match for Treigle or Ramey, he doesn't miss by much. And the ASO performance and Telarc recording quality are pretty much assured of shaking your rafters just as well as the dramatic parts of the Berlioz work will.

The Verdi work is equally fine, but not nearly as cataclysmic as his "Manzoni" Requiem or Berlioz's own Te Deum.

The age of these performances (1984 for the Berlioz and 1979 for the fillers) doesn't show a bit. And neither does Berlioz the composer, 200 years old today.

Bon anniversaire, M. Berlioz!

Bob Zeidler
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Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique /ORR * Gardiner
Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique /ORR * Gardiner
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17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man., December 5, 2003
Why not imagine that today is December 5, 1830, rather than December 5, 2003? And that you are a Parisian concertgoer, more or less knowledgeable about the music of the time, including that of Ludwig van Beethoven, whose symphonies were just in the process of "being discovered" by Parisians of the time? Place yourself, if you will, in the concert hall of the Paris Conservatoire on this date, to hear the first public performance of any work by a young French composer - still six days shy of his 27th birthday - who, in the previous two years, had been dramatically affected by hearing Beethoven's symphonies.

That Frenchman was of course Hector Berlioz, and his work that received its premiere on December 5, 1830 was his Symphonie fantastique. And, if you had been one of the concertgoers at this premiere, as you proceeded to your seat, you would take in the vista of an orchestra whose likes (and size) you had never seen before, one with four harps across the front, a battery of timpani arrayed across the rear, and, as well, a number of woodwind and brass instruments never before seen in such an ensemble. An unusually young man with an unruly mop of red hair would take the podium, thence to lead the orchestra in a near-hour-long work that would affect the course of musical history for a century to come. The work would be an instant success, and young Berlioz, unruly red mop and all, would become an overnight celebrity as a result.

What John Eliot Gardiner and his Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique have endeavored to do in this recording is nothing less than to recapture the excitement of that premiere, right down to details such as the actual performance venue and the incorporation of period instruments used by Berlioz then but seldom since. This is as close as one could possibly come to recreating that evening, and the recreation is a splendid, even smashing, success.

Listening to this recording is - for me, anyway - almost like hearing the work for the first time. Certainly, it is the first time the work has sounded so fresh, and not the battered old war horse that we're used to hearing, both in concert and on recordings. While the freshness (and the clarity) are there from the get-go, the real differences begin to show up in the second movement, "Un bal," where four harps (for which Berlioz wrote in a new style not heard before) are arrayed across the front of the orchestra, with the recording perfectly capturing the horizontal space they occupy. Later in this movement, it is easy to pick out the unique timbre of the cornet a piston as being readily distinct from the valveless trumpets also in the Berlioz orchestra. (This is somewhat of an anomaly, but an excusable one, since the instrument only became available sometime before Berlioz revised the work after this premiere performance.)

The third movement - "Scene aux champs" - adds an aspect of three-dimensional depth, with its English horn in the foreground echoed by the oboe nicely placed in the background. At the end of this movement, so obviously a tribute to Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony which Berlioz had heard for the first time just the previous year, the battery of timpani arrayed across the full rear of the orchestra give a splendid sense of distant thunder.

But it is in the last two movements where the original Berlioz intentions, as recreated by Gardiner, are best realized, particularly with the snarl and buzz coming from the ophicleide and serpent (later replaced by the bass tuba, but not with nearly as exciting an effect), and the slimey , penetrating bite of the E-flat sopranino clarinet. As well, the bells that Gardiner has at hand for the "Dies Irae" section of the final movement are appropriately ominous in their sonority. The performance ends in a glorious rush, resplendent in its brass textures owing to Gardiner's choice of period instruments.

In point of fact, much of the instrumental texture heard in these two movements, as well as Berlioz's use of the cornet in the second movement, is owed to his willingness to "borrow" instruments commonly used in military bands of the time but not in symphony orchestras. In the main, this was a practice not picked up by subsequent composers, but Gustav Mahler for one had a similar approach to instrumentation (and in fact was an ardent admirer of this Berlioz work).

We hear the work differently these days. Modern instrument construction provides a wider dynamic range, brighter timbres and more certain intonation (although Gardiner's musicians have no intonation problems whatsoever). The newcomer to Gardiner's recreation might at first think this approach to be on the subdued side, on account of the smaller absolute range of dynamic possibilities with period instruments. But the range of instrumental textures these period instruments achieve comes across as wider and more distinctive, rather than the more homogenized and "standardized" timbres we've become acclimated to: the timbral range more than makes up for any - and mostly inconsequential - reduction in dynamic range.

Heard in this freshly-reconstructed period-instrument light, the Symphonie fantastique is a marvel of clarity and originality, in my opinion superior in its dramatic and poetic impact over the later-revised version that Berlioz was to produce, mainly to deal with the exigencies and economics of performance practice and period instrument availability. If you are to have as few as two recordings of this work, this needs to be one of those two.

Happy anniversary, Louis-Hector Berlioz, for this breakthrough work!

Bob Zeidler


Ives: Holidays Symphony
Ives: Holidays Symphony
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16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "Thanksgiving and Forefathers' Day": It's what's for today., November 27, 2003
This review is from: Ives: Holidays Symphony (Audio CD)
The "Holidays Symphony" of Charles Ives, comprised of four movements to symbolize the passing of the four seasons by connecting them to important American holidays, was originally intended to be four standalone works, each of which could be performed separately in conjunction with its respective holiday.

Only later did Ives combine them as a four-movement "symphony." So, on this Thanksgiving Day of 2003, I chose to "deconstruct" them, just so that I might concentrate - for the occasion - on "Thanksgiving and Forefathers' Day."

This movement should, in my opinion, be numbered among the finest Ives compositions of all. It is brilliantly written and scored, with many original instrumental touches, particularly for percussion, where Ives calls upon low church bells, tubular bells and celesta, as well as an offstage ensemble of 4 horns, trombone and contrabassoon, all to marvelous effect. The ending, where the chorus enters singing to the words of the hymn tune "Duke Street," is simply breathtaking in its spirituality; truly transcendent and sublime.

But there are aspects to this movement that I've not seen anyone else mention, aspects that are startling in a prescient way, and therefore worth some mention. There is a quiet interlude, at about midpoint, scored for a reduced chamber ensemble of woodwinds, cornet, strings and celesta, that is "proto-Copland" in its sound texture, typical Coplandesque "Americana" yet written decades before "Appalachian Spring," which this section anticipates in a most remarkable way, with nearly identical chamber orchestra textures and, even, thematic ideas. The interlude then is followed by a penultimate section, prior to the choral entry, that has textures - and harmonies for that matter - similar to what William Schuman would, like Copland, write decades later. This brief section provides a perfect transition to the choral entry. And this is precisely where words fail me, because what Ives achieves here simply turns me to jelly. Only at the end of "From Hanover Square North" (from his Orchestral Set No. 2) and in the final movement of his masterpiece, the Symphony No. 4, was Ives able to match this "Holiday" in transcendent beauty.

The other three holidays/seasons ("Washington's Birthday"/Winter, "Decoration Day"/Spring and "The Fourth of July"/Summer) are all of a piece with this Thanksgiving one. Tilson Thomas has this music in his blood, having been an Ivesian from a very young age as conductors go. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, famed for its brass choir, earns kudos for ALL of its choirs in this performance, easily the best available and one not likely to be topped any time soon. And of course it doesn't hurt to have the Margaret Hillis-directed CSO Chorus for the conclusion of "Thanksgiving and Forefathers' Day" (the one movement that I just HAD to listen to, not that I excluded the rest of the work, or the disc for that matter).

The album is nicely rounded out with Ives's two contemplations: "A Contemplation of a Serious Matter" and "A Contemplation of Nothing Serious," more commonly known as "The Unanswered Question" and "Central Park in the Dark." Better yet, "The Unanswered Question" appears in two versions: the original as written in 1906, and a revised version, written some 20-odd years later, in which the trumpet and woodwind phrases are somewhat altered to add to the enigmatic nature of the work. In both versions, the Chicago strings play with an atmospheric perfection rarely heard. The ragtime piano in the foreground of "Central Park in the Dark" is hard to top, also. But for this particular "contemplation" I do have a preference for James Sinclair's (British) Northern Sinfonia Orchestra performance (on Naxos #8559087), for which I had written, "Much of Ives's music is all about space and distance, and the bar-room piano heard very faintly in the background truly gives this sense of space, as well as a sense of evening mist in the park."

The renowned Ives biographer Jan Swafford writes on this page, "My vote for the finest Ives orchestral recording ever made." I'm not of a mind to argue with Swafford, Ives expert that he is, especially on this particular day, and equally especially by virtue of the phenomenal performances that Tilson Thomas elicits from his Chicago orchestral and choral forces throughout.

Cue it up, folks. It's "what's for Thanksgiving."

Bob Zeidler
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Celestial Country / Abram in Egypt
Celestial Country / Abram in Egypt
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The short life of "Charles Ives, public composer.", November 25, 2003
Charles Ives was a "public" composer for only a brief time, after which - and for the remaining time of his active composing career - he composed strictly in private, essentially as a part-time activity while being engaged full-time as a business executive in the life insurance industry.

The catalyzing event that caused this shift was the premiere performance, and the subsequent print press reception, of the major work on this CD, his cantata "The Celestial Country." Composed in the years immediately following his graduation from Yale, the cantata was first performed on April 18, 1902 (almost exactly four years after leaving Yale) at the Central Presbyterian Church in New York (where Ives was the organist), to a full house, with Ives conducting the work from his organ console.

The two reviews (one in the New York Times and one in Musical Courier, both of them reprinted in their entirety in "Charles Ives and His World," edited by J. Peter Burkholder) were hardly dismissive of the work. From the Times, we read "The composition seems worthy of a more complete hearing. It has the elementary merit of being scholarly and well made. But it is also spirited and melodious..." The review from the Musical Courier concludes with a paragraph stating that "An audience completely filling the church listened with expressions of pleasure, and at the close the composer was overwhelmed with congratulations, which he accepted in modest fashion."

It is difficult, stylistically speaking, to go back in time a full century and endeavor to "read between the lines" of these reviews to see what it was about them - particularly the Musical Courier review - that managed to get under Ives's skin. In any event, this is "water under the bridge"; the work lay dormant after that single performance for another 70 years (and a full 18 years after Ives's death) until it was performed in 1972 by the Gregg Smith Singers. Harold Farberman was also an exceedingly active Ives advocate in that early '70s time frame, and this recording (remastered from a 1973 LP on the CRI label) represents the very first recording of the work.

While hardly a "long-lost/now-found masterpiece," "The Celestial Country" is nonetheless an important bit of Ivesiana, one that may well appeal to those who ordinarily give his music a wide berth. The work bears some resemblance to a superficially similar work by his Yale teacher, Horatio Parker. That work is Parker's "Hora novissima" oratorio, like the Ives based on texts by Bernard of Cluny, a 12th century monk. But, whereas Parker set his work in the original Latin, Ives has his in English translation, and the texts appear to not overlap (perhaps a conscious decision on Ives's part).

The two works diverge considerably, once past the textual (and, to a lesser extent, structural) similarities. Where the Parker work amounts to little more than Victorian kitsch these days, "The Celestial Country" already exhibits some of the "Ives the experimentalist" qualities for which he'd later become famous. The Ives work, scored for tenor and baritone vocal soloists, a double quartet of vocal soloists as well as a larger mixed chorus, with instrumental support provided by string quartet, trumpet, euphonium, organ and timpani, goes its own way early on, with a mildly dissonant organ introduction, with other equally dissonant organ interludes separating the major movements of the work.

In an unusual juxtaposition of forces and styles, the work includes an Intermezzo for String Quartet at -as one might imagine - its midpoint. There are also two nice arias, one each for the tenor and baritone soloists. But it is the choral writing that catches one's attention, especially a Double Chorus, a cappella and the concluding Chorale and Finale, where Ives brings in the full instrumental support, including two brass horns (trumpet and euphonium), organ and timpani. The cantata ends in a wonderful flourish; a happy ending that well fits the optimistic text set out by Bernard of Cluny.

Recordings of this work are hard to come by, but I have managed to track down two others besides this Farberman performance. One of them - led by Stephen Cleobury directing the BBC Singers (Collins Classics 1479-2, but, like the Farberman, sadly out of print) - is a close contender for top honors. But Farberman's performance carries the day, particularly by virtue of its double quartet and the rousing conclusion, highlighted by a euphonium player who really rips (as I'm sure the score indicates he should) and a lead soprano (Hazel Holt) who really nails an obligato high C near the end. In at least these details, this Farberman performance tops the Cleobury one, most other factors being equal. But one DOES wish that Sony would treat its back catalog more respectfully, and remaster and reissue the Gregg Smith Singers performance, which has yet to make it to CD.

The filler work, another cantata, this by Elinor Remick Warren titled "Abram in Egypt" and dated 1960, is an adequate if not particularly memorable work. Warren (1900-1991), by all accounts a child prodigy both in composition and as a pianist, had a long, if not especially notable, career as a composer. (Perhaps this is somehow related to the fact that she spent virtually her entire life on the west coast, away from the east coast arts and culture spotlight.) In any event, the work is thoroughly professional, reminding me at times of similar neoromantic choral works by Howard Hanson and Randall Thompson. Not bad; but you'll want this CD for the Ives work.

The recorded sound is fine, save for a very brief and minor amount of pre-echo at the beginning of the Chorale and Finale of the Ives work (probably the result of having the master tape in storage for a considerable length of time).

Bob Zeidler
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Nightwatch
Nightwatch
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4.0 out of 5 stars Superb organ improvisations by a master of the genre., November 24, 2003
This review is from: Nightwatch (Audio CD)
I've sat in the dark for untold hours, listening to Paul Halley improvise on the great organ at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. And I'm not even a communicant! I'm simply one among thousands who have undertaken the pilgrimage once or twice a year to catch Paul Winter's solstice concerts there. It's quite an eerie feeling, knowing that you are among roughly 3000 attendees filling this space, yet in an environment so quiet, save for the music, that you could hear a pin drop. This is one measure of the effect that Paul Halley's improvisations can have on listeners.

While Halley is no longer associated with either the Cathedral or the Paul Winter Consort (having gone on to do some splendid things in the area of choral performances), we at least have this one album of his solo improvisations to remind us of his unique genius and skills. We of course also have many of his improvisations, made as a key member of the Consort, recorded for posterity on several Paul Winter Consort albums, but this one is rather special insofar as it is the only one available that exhibits Halley's solo work during the time he was the Cathedral's organist.

As Halley explains in his nicely-written booklet notes, Nightwatch is the name given to an ongoing series of Friday night organ-demonstration events (instituted originally by him and now in its 24th year) as part of a weekend youth worship program (carried out through the school year), specifically for high schoolers. The improvisations captured here are more than "just a demonstration of the great organ," though. They have been carefully selected to exhibit musical values well beyond merely the "demo" value of hearing the organ "speak" its remarkable qualities.

All five of these works are excellent, and the sound, digitally remastered from tapes for a 1982 LP, is splendid. Of the five works, I do think that one stands out above the others: the final track, titled "Dawn/Sunrise," based on the Latin plainchant, "Adore Te, Devote." This is a work that is clearly dear to Halley's heart, inasmuch as it appears - only slightly transmogrified - as "For the Beauty of the Earth" in Paul Winter's "Missa Gaia" and in a wonderful setting for flute and organ that appears on "Free as a Bird," an album featuring flautist Rhonda Larson playing several Halley compositions and arrangements. This particular improvisation captures virtually the full range of timbres and coloristic capabilities of the great organ, from the softest flue stops to the brilliance of the unique state trumpet stop, said to be the most powerful on any organ extant.

The booklet notes also include a comprehensive overview of the organ by its curator, both in terms of its stoplist and its history, as first an E. M. Skinner organ and later as an Aeolian-Skinner organ when it was rebuilt and totally revoiced by G. Donald Harrison.

I have only one complaint about this album (preventing me from giving it a 5-star rating), and that is its very short running time, more than a full minute less than 40 minutes. Surely, with over nearly a decade of Nightwatch performances under Halley's aegis, it should have been possible to come up with an additional 20 or 30 minutes of music for inclusion. Nonetheless, the album is remarkable for what it is: a prime example of an artform - organ improvisation - that hopefully is presently (and once again) in the ascendency.

Bob Zeidler


Ives: Emerson Concerto / Symphony No. 1
Ives: Emerson Concerto / Symphony No. 1
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39 of 39 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Charlie Done Right. Part III., October 31, 2003
Superficially, this new Naxos release of Ives's 1st Symphony and the premiere recording of his Emerson Concerto resembles an earlier Naxos release of his 2nd Symphony and Robert Browning Overture (a review of which I gave the sobriquet "Charlie done right"). The resemblance is in the pairing of an "accessible" Ives work with one more "knotty." In each case, the symphony receives a performance using a new critical edition (by Jonathan Elkus in that earlier release and by James Sinclair in this one). And each critical edition affords a fresh view of such "accessible" Ives. But the similarities shouldn't be overdrawn; while the Robert Browning Overture is knotty under the best of circumstances, the Emerson Concerto turns out to be more accessible than I expected; a pleasant revelation.

The 1st Symphony was a "student" work, Ives's Yale thesis work written for his teacher, Horatio Parker, but with the clear influence of his "experimentalist" father, George Ives. (An idea of Ives's "experimentation" is found as early as in the first movement, nominally in D minor, where a passage modulates through eight different key signatures. A near-apocryphal anecdote related by Ives in his later years has Parker at least mildly annoyed by Ives's insistence on these modulations, but finally "throwing up his hands" in defeat and stating "But you must promise to end in D minor.")

If Ives learned from his father, he also clearly learned from Parker. The work is very much in a late 19th-century European mold, with strong resemblances to both Dvorak's New World Symphony (particularly in the second-movement Adagio molto, an obvious "borrowing" from the famous Largo of the Dvorak) and Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6 in the final movement. If not of the caliber (and endurance of appeal) of other such "first efforts" in the genre as those by Berlioz, Mahler and Shostakovich (at age 19!), it is nonetheless eminently appealing and, even, entertaining. Moreover, it lacks nothing by way of craft except perhaps for an overabundance of ideas (seemingly so rich that a "thriftier" composer might have stretched another symphony out of them). He demonstrates, in this youthful work, that he is as well a very skilled orchestrator, despite his youth and inexperience.

Over the years, I've collected what I think are (or were) all the available recordings of this work: Morton Gould with the Chicago Symphony (the world premiere recording), Eugene Ormandy with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and, most recently, Michael Tilson Thomas with (again) the Chicago Symphony. This new Sinclair performance puts them all out to pasture. (Only the Gould is remembered with fondness, because it was a "discovery" for me.)

Sinclair's critical edition restores a first-movement repeat and adds side-drum percussion (more about THAT later) in the Finale, and as well, I expect, corrects numerous small errors. His reading of the work is superb, the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland turn in a splendid performance, and the sonics are among Naxos's best (which means "very good indeed").

Particularly felicitous is Sinclair's interpretation of the Adagio molto second movement, where he lovingly lingers over its beauties, in which Ives serves notice that he is a true melodist, not merely a "note spinner," when he chooses to be. The coda of the Finale is certainly enhanced by the inclusion of side drums having a very "American" flavor, perhaps the single best hint that this is the work of an American composer despite its European flavor otherwise (as if "you can take the boy out of Danbury but you can't take Danbury out of the boy"). Such percussion scoring would become commonplace a generation or so later; it became a frequent touchstone in the works of William Schuman, as one example.

The other work, the Emerson Concerto in its recording premiere, hardly arrives "unannounced," as Alan Feinberg, the soloist here, has performed the work (to splendid reviews) in concerts since its concert premiere in 1998. But for most of us this is a "first hearing."

The work is"realized" by David G. Porter, an Ives scholar who must number among the fearless of this small community, from incomplete sketches of an "Emerson Overture" for piano and orchestra (one of four such proposed overtures on literary figures, of which only the Robert Browning Overture saw completion). According to Sinclair's authoritative "Descriptive Catalog of the Music of Charles Ives," the terms "overture" and "concerto" can be used interchangeably.

While Ives never completed the work, he did succeed in subsuming many of its themes in the Concord Sonata and the Four Emerson Transcriptions for Piano that are closely related, thematically, to the Concord. By far the most famous of these themes is the four-note "Fate" motive that begins Beethoven's 5th Symphony, a theme for which Ives ascribed greater "universality" than did Beethoven himself.

Ivesians coming upon this work for the first time will find it to be a fascinating, and at times compelling, mix of "the old" and "the new and strange." For the most part, connections to the Concord and the Emerson Transcriptions will be recognized, but of course transmogrified. The "Fate" motive seems to be more dominant here than in the keyboard equivalents; it is clearly the unifying theme for all four movements. Feinberg is absolutely heroic in his performance (as he needs to be, needless to say).

Orchestrating the work (and here Porter has done a superb job) clarifies far more than it obscures, vis-à-vis the keyboard works. As would be expected, shattering dissonances live side-by-side with passages of transcendent beauty. I was even able to pick out a passage or two where quarter-tones seem to have been employed by Porter; they are for the most part in the quieter passages, and they simply glow with beauty.

As much as I've enjoyed the work in its first few hearings, I think it will grow on me even more over time. And the newly-revised 1st Symphony is a winner on all accounts.

Needless to say, highy recommended.

Bob Zeidler


Virgil Fox: Organ Recital
Virgil Fox: Organ Recital
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20 of 23 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A "stopgap" until you can manage to find the real deal., October 26, 2003
The provenance of this LaserLight CD is detailed below, in a near-identical release of Virgil Fox performing this music, but on the Bainbridge label and titled "The Digital Fox." This LaserLight release, while both inexpensive and readily available, suffers from a few major deficiencies: (1.) There is a brief, but disconcerting, drop-out at the beginning of the opening track. (2.) Despite its clearly being labeled as "Digital" (on both the booklet cover and on the CD), and a booklet note to the effect that "...Virgil Fox began an historic series of recordings: the first digital tape recordings made in the United States," this is NOT a digital recording; the CD transfer was made from analog direct-to-disk LP-master lacquers. (3.) This transfer process has altered the frequency balance, causing it to be bass-heavy and treble-shy. (4.) The booklet notes are useless. If you consider yourself a Virgil Fox fan, seek out that Bainbridge release. My comments on that release follow below.

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There is so much of historical significance to Virgil Fox fans and pipe organ aficionados in this album, originally recorded in 1977, that it is rather difficult to know where to begin. It was Fox's final recording, made when he had already been diagnosed with cancer. (He lived another three years, but his performing schedule and abilities declined, at first slowly but then precipitously as the cancer metastasized in his hands.) It was also the first, last and only recording - to the best of my knowledge - of what was then a new (1976) Ruffati organ installation in the Garden Grove Community Church (that of Dr. Robert Schuller); not long after the recording session, the organ was dismantled, and parts of it combined with parts from the 1962 Aeolian-Skinner organ from Philharmonic Hall in Lincoln Center, NY, to become the new installation in the equally-new Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove. (The Philharmonic Hall organ was removed when the venue was remade as Avery Fisher Hall.) And apparently - with evidence that is difficult to refute - this was the first digital recording made in the U.S. It remains as the sole digital recording that Fox made.

This digital provenance was not at first known. Originally, the 1977 Garden Grove sessions had been released on a pair of direct-to-disk LPs on the Crystal Clear label. According to the copyright information on this Bainbridge CD, the date of digital release was 1983, three years after Fox's death. To confuse matters further, the 1977 Garden Grove sessions are also available on a LaserLight CD release, an item I review elsewhere under the product title "Virgil Fox Performs Bach, Franck, Dupre, Widor and others." (From what web research findings I've been able to locate, the provenances of the two releases differ, with the LaserLight CD release being made from the original direct-to-disk lacquer masters, not always the same precise "takes" as here, although the sessions were the same. The LaserLight release is inferior, for both sonic reasons and others, a point I clarify in that other review.) So much for the historical materials. It is the music - and the performance here - that matters.

Virtually every work on this CD is a "staple" in the organ soloist's repertoire. (A minor exception should probably be made for the Jehan Alain work, "Litanies," seldom heard but now part of a definitive set of Jehan Alain CDs on the Erato label by his sister, Marie-Claire Alain.)

Lest there be any question regarding Fox's terminal illness causing a loss of ability and technique at the time this recording was made, he immediately puts that question to rest in the opening work, the famous Bach Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, BWV 565. At the outset of the Toccata of this chestnut, his articulation is crisp; throughout, his choices of stops and voicings are appropriate, and, during the closing pages of the fugue, one can again hear his impeccably crisp playing. While perhaps somewhat on the "romantic" side in terms of his use of rubato, this is not an idiosyncratic interpretation at all; rather, simply, Bach played well. Probably my favorite recording of the work.

Joseph Jongen, a Belgian whose Symphonie Concertante for Organ and Orchestra is probably second only to the famous Saint-Saëns Symphony No. 3 for popularity in this genre, is justly famed for the final Toccata of this work. Here, Fox (as, apparently, only he could do) interpolates large portions of the orchestral accompaniment along with the solo organ part, in a truly prodigious display of technique. At the close of this Toccata, there is a descending scale passage, a finishing flourish that "makes or breaks" concert organists. Fox blows through this passage as if it were child's play.

The rest of this album of organ chestnuts is "of a piece" with the above-mentioned ones: Fox in prime time. The recorded sound is terrific: it has excellent frequency and dynamic range, and just the right amount of ambient reverberation has been caught. One wishes that this remarkable Ruffati organ installation had been recorded more than just this once, before it emerged transmogrified (along with the Philharmonic Hall organ) as the Crystal Cathedral organ; it - for all its brevity of existence - was one fine instrument.

The booklet notes include a small note to the effect that "...the newest technology, Digital Tape, was employed as well." (This technology was NOT used for the original Crystal Clear LPs, from which the LaserLight CD was derived.) For this reason, and others as well, Fox fans should seek out this Bainbridge "true digital" release over the less expensive but decidedly inferior LaserLight release.

Bob Zeidler
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