Saturday, May 09, 2015


Continuing the theme of works written around and in response to World War I, the Kansas City Symphony led by Music Director Michael Stern gave the local audience the somewhat rare opportunity to experience the Nielsen Symphony # 4 “Inextinguishable”, written in 1916 at the height of the war. Nielsen is a tough nut to crack and his music gives up its secrets, power and genius reluctantly. I should know. I have tried and tried to appreciate and understand, even enjoy, the music of a composer many classical music cognoscenti rank in high esteem.

Taken at face value, the symphony can become a series of disjointed episodes that have little organic flow. What the “Inextinguishable” needs, it appears, is a committed, forceful and almost reckless (ready to skitter off the road any second) performance that makes this symphony more than just a somewhat conservative, yet quirky, early 20th century work. The conductor has to keep all the horsepower in control, throttling back at times to allow the orchestral engine to accelerate to full speed. Stern and the Kansas City Symphony did just that. And made a believer out of me after all.

A good example is the first measures of the symphony. The white hot outburst from the full orchestra and the all-important tympani seamlessly decelerates to a calmer, almost wistful section that in abruptly interrupted by an agitated episode... the world is starting to crumble. Every section of the orchestra marched in lock step to Stern's urgent vision of the work. The always admirable winds of the orchestra were in full bloom, especially the clarinets in the above mentioned slow theme. The tympani was well integrated (a real problem in some performances, it is not really a tympani concerto), the brass solid and the strings lush. The violas' “machine gun” figures were well done and again integrated into the whole, not just some poorly placed interruption. The very end of the movement glowed with Straussian grandeur, never overwrought, but powerful and rich.

Moving on with out pause, the winds are again prominent in the quietly energetic second movement. Stern brings out Nielsen's humanity in this more relaxed episode, yet never lets the tension completely down... the world is still at battle. Finely balanced in ensemble and perfectly animated in tempo, Stern integrated this movement in the whole scheme of the symphony, making it more than just a charming scherzo.

The searing third section follows without pause. Intense with finely tuned release and tension, the deeply moving section flows via a shimmering bridge passage (with lovely oboe solo from Principal Kristina Fulton ) to the climactic finale.

Stern let the forces loose in what has to be the most insanely dramatic eight minutes in the orchestral literature, and maybe the most thrilling eight minutes of the KCS season. Stern flicked through the many gear changes in the movement, never losing momentum. Note must be made of the thrilling horn passages, that soared over it all with precise and clear intonation, brushing aside the days when Kansas City Symphony horn solos made one cringe. Stern brought back the wistful “inextinguishable” theme from the first movement in full glory. The dueling tympani were fine but the extra tympani on the right just seemed to be a little timid, lessening the thunderous impact of the passages. Some of the audience just seemed to not get it (or were shell shocked) and the response was muted in comparison to the easier to handle opening half. But hey.. took me years to see what this incredible work had to offer.

Opening the concert was Richard Strauss' 1888 “Don Juan” op.20. In 1880's Weimar this bold and ardent tone poem dazzled the audiences as easily as it does still today. From the soaring opening (one of the most exciting in all orchestral literature) through the tender love music and on to the climatic fall from power and his death, Stern brought “Don Juan” to vivid life. As in the Nielsen, the winds, especially the horns were well balanced and colorful. The strings, however, could use some strength to be more lush as befits a Strauss tone poem, but one could not quibble over their commitment and frequent beauty. The final stab of the trumpet, signaling Don Juan's demise brought the work to a powerful close. A fine and certainly challenging curtain raiser in every (positive) sense of the word.

Pianist Steven Lin joined the orchestra for the Mozart Piano Concerto # 20 in D minor K466. Lin, winner of many awards and recipient of excellent reviews world wide, was clearly an audience favorite here as well, receiving a most sincere and prolonged ovation. The opening movement of the concerto is one of Mozart's most dramatic solidly in the dark of D minor. One hears the foreshadowing of Beethoven in this big boned, lengthy concerto and Stern and Lin took pains to keep that in the forefront.

The Romanze second movement was lyrical and “romantic” without being fussy. The more agitated central section contrasted well with the more graceful sections that surround it. Stern kept the orchestral balance in line and in sync with the soloist. The rippling, energetic finale spun forth in a controlled torrent, Lin enjoying every soaring phrase and dazzling run. Throughout the performance Lin was technically brilliant and sparkling, but just did not mine the underlying drama and tragedy and even elegance and grace that marks fine Mozart 20 performance. With time and maturity, Lin will be an even better Mozart interpreter, with his commanding technique combined with a deeper more dramatic vision, he will be one to turn to.

For me this was a expertly performed, intelligent and challenging program; each work having an underpinning of tragedy and conflict intertwined with “inextinguishable” human spirit and redemption.

Monday, May 04, 2015

Bucket List II: A Mad King and other Englishmen sing

Before he tried to save the Orkney Islands from mining destruction, became "Master of the Queen's Musick" and infamous for a nasty break up with his partner, Peter Maxwell Davies was a true bad boy and maverick. Nothing demonstrated that reputation better than the "Eight Songs for a Mad King", for baritone and six instruments. Eight Songs is one of those pieces more talked about than performed due to the daunting task of finding a singer that can (or is willing) to sing/perform the insane (pun intended) role of the Mad King George III. Lucky for us the newEar Contemporary Music Ensemble felt up to the task and found a singer willing to learn the part.

Saturday April 25th concert featured the Eight Songs paired with a sampling of works by contemporary English Composers. "A Purcell Garland" a collaborative effort of Colin Matthews, George Benjamin and Oliver Knussen on three Fantasias by Henry Purcell and Johnathan Harvey's Sting Trio opened the program.

The three Fantasias that compose "A Purcell Garland" are a look back at England's first great composer through Contemporary eyes and techniques. In the more modern voice, the bass instruments (piano and cello) have a melodic component that would not be assigned to them in Purcell's time, thus deepening the texture and emphasizing the inherent drama and pathos of these short pieces. Even using modern instruments (Violin, Viola, Cello, Clarinet and Piano/Celeste), the harmonic language and spare use of vibrato recalls the sounds of a 17th century ensemble.

Matthew's arrangement of "Fantasia 13" is the most expansive since the original breaks off after about 30 bars. The composed section, an agitated fantasy, references and comments on Purcell's original, before returning to the somber mood of the opening. Benjamin's "7th Fantasia" is more straightforward, more of an orchestration in contemporary sound than an arrangement. In this performance, pianist Robert Pherigo used a harpsichord rather than a celeste to good effect. Knussen's re-working of the familiar "Fantasia upon One Note" expands the theme with the constantly sounding C fading in and out of the texture. In this performance, newEar included the optional part for viola, adding depth of sound and texture to the piece. These three inventive and colorful exercises affectionately looked back to the heritage of Purcell and his importance as the foundation of English music tradition, providing an appropriate and informative opening to the program.

Johnathan Harvey (1939-2012) was a prolific composer of chamber, electronic and vocal works and an active teacher, but actually this was my introduction to his music. The "String Trio" from 2004 is terse and gritty a la Ferneyhough and ultimately a most satisfyingly challenging piece. The work begins with echoes of Bartok in its rustic, folk-like sound world and drumming sounds from the cello but soon evolves into Harvey's trademark spatialism as the three instruments, engage and disengage in a short motives and long, linear passages evolving eventually to a wild, skittish dance. Slower and more contemplative sections introduce a spiritual aspect, inspired by his liturgical drama based the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. This spiritual and pastoral aspect provides a foundation to experience the work as a long melodic whole and not just a series of disconnected sounds and episodes. Not easy listening, frequent quiet passages in harmonics and delicate pizzicato requires concentration and possibly several "listens" (thankfully a fine performance is available on CD with Harvey's 4 String Quartets with the incomparable Arditti String Quartet) to reveal the argument of this intense essay. Sunho Kim, Violin, Nell French, Viola, and Larry Figg, Cello were technically brilliant, especially in the exposed, threadbare passages of harmonics and extreme pianissimo. The tight ensemble reveled in the innate lyricism of the work as well. As fine a performance of this thorny work as one could imagine, well done.

The "Eight Songs for a Mad King" (1969) put the then 35 year-old Peter Maxwell Davies on the map. Written for "The Pierrot Players" (a group he founded) and actor Roy Hart who was known for his immense vocal range and ability, "Eight Songs" pushes the performers to extremities of technique and emotion. Maxwell Davies’ librettist, Randolph Stow, created eight monologues that King George III, slowly descending into complete madness, shouts, sings, screams, whispers and growls to his beloved caged birds. The instruments (violin, cello, flute (d. piccolo), clarinet, piano (d. harpsichord) and percussion) representing his caged birds, often engage in solo dialog with the variously lucid King. Bass-Baritone Kenn Kumpf, singer, teacher and composer from Chicago, portrayed King George.

"Eight Songs" is as intense to experience as it must be to prepare and perform. The King not only sings to his birds (the first performance famously had each of the instruments in bird cages) but frequently addresses the audience as if they were members of the Court witnessing the sad, demented King's rants. Due to space limitations, there was no attempt at "staging" with this performance, but the intimacy of the space brought the King directly into our presence. While the King may be mad, and the vocal part more of a set of instructions rather than a musical score, the work is quite a logically laid out musical structure. Each of the songs is based on one of the eight tunes from a music box once owned by the King, interwoven with references to not only Handel but to musical forms and characteristics of King George's era.

Rarely performed, (newEar's Andrew Granade said they wanted to perform it because not only was it a Kansas City premiere but also because "it was fun"), this performance was spectacular in about every way. The instrumental balance was excellent, never overwhelming the singer yet always present and technically without fault. Kumpf was simply brilliant with his panoply of vocal sounds in every possible octave while maintaining quite understandable diction, essential for the audience to pick up on the irony and even wit of the libretto. In the climactic 7th song where the King grabs, strums and ultimately smashes her violin, Sunho Kim spent the rest of the piece in pitiful sulking, adding a touch of amusement to the otherwise tense piece. For the eighth song, "The Review, a Spanish March", the bass drum marched the now fully mad King off the stage and out the door as he "died howling.... howling..howling...." Totally brilliant.

The program notes were informative and intelligent with the full text of "Eight Songs" provided.

Mad Kings and Englishmen was easily one of the best performed and intelligently programmed concerts in recent newEar memory; a complete musical experience from nostalgically elegant court dances all the way to insane in-your-face theatre.

Saturday, May 02, 2015

Back to Basics

I envisioned this blog as something in between. There is room, I thought, for someone to review and comment upon classical music concerts and the occasional recording from an informed listener's perspective. More than "I liked" or "I didn't like" but less than the technical reviews who excoriate a performance where the "second bassoon misses the quiet back beats that are essential to the architecture..." and so on.

But I noticed that in my recent writing, I was starting to lean towards the latter... and not being a trained musician, was failing miserably.

Thus I am going to head back to what I think I do best, comment on what I heard but from the informed listener's aspect. I know a lot about music, I know what I like. I can tell good from bad, committed from apathetic and when a performer or ensemble communicates their message. That is what made "Puggingham Palace" and now "Pictures on Silence" what it is... whatever that is. It made it fun for me, and being selfish, that is what I am going to do.

Back to basics, and if lean towards the extremes as I mentioned above... call me on it.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

A Concord Essay

I love the term “bucket list” and think everyone should have one. For the un-initiated, the term comes from a movie where two terminally ill men go off on an adventure to do things they always wanted to do before they euphemistically “kick the bucket”. One of life's greatest pleasures is to cross off something on one's list.

This past Saturday February 21st, I got to do just that. I heard a live, complete performance of a work on my music “bucket list”, the Piano Sonata No. 2 (Concord, Mass., 1840-1860) by Charles Ives. In St Joseph, Missouri of all places, performed by the remarkable, über-talented and shall we say brave pianist Robert Pherigo. Assisting in this insane genius work was Rico McNeela in the tiny, but often omitted viola line in the first movement and Lyra Pherigo in the more important but also sometimes omitted flute part in the Thoreau movement.

As was typical of the feisty and innovative composer, Ives broke most of the piano sonata rules. The sonata is programmatic to a point, something rather unusual for a piano sonata, being a musical portrait of transcendentalist authors who lived in Concord, Massachusetts, around 1840-1860: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, the Alcott's Louisa May and her father Bronson, and Henry David Thoreau. Most classical sonatas were in three movements, but Ives included four, stretching the work to almost symphonic stature. Few, if any, piano sonatas have parts for viola and flute scattered about either. Early material exists from around 1904 and it seems the work was conceived as a piano concerto. Work on the solo sonata started in earnest around 1910-11 and was mostly finished around 1915. Ives tended to fiddle with his music off and on thus the work was revised in 1947, the edition that seems to be played the most.

Like icing on a tasty cake was the informative pre-concert talk by author and composer Kyle Gann, one of the foremost authorities on Charles Ives, the Concord Sonata and Vice President of the Charles Ives society. Gann focused on the work's background and the personages that inspired it while highlighting the recurring themes and motives that tie the sprawling work into a quite logical and organic whole.

More than a recital or concert, this was an old fashioned “happening” for those who remember what that meant.

The performance? I make no bones that I am nowhere near qualified to judge, just looking at the score gives me a headache. I found it technically excellent to my ears, having heard the work many times in recordings and Robert negotiated the work from memory without a visible sweat or concern. A Hamelin, Fitzpatrick, Denk or Kalish might bring more polish, technical brilliance and more experience with the complex score (Hamelin's “Alcotts” will bring goose-bumps, but this one was not far behind) but Pherigo brought the work and Concord, Mass. to life for the appreciative audience, many of whom I am sure, like me, had never had the opportunity to hear it live. Even Gann said it had been a while for him. Certainly far far far and did I say far from a slam-bang run through, Robert found the humor, the lyricism, the tenderness, nobility and humanity in this complex score. On that damp, winter night in St Joseph Robert brought the work to life, let us glimpse the world of the denizens of Concord and communicated Ives own commentary on them and on humanity itself.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Kansas City Symphony: Old and New

The Kansas City Symphony concerts for the weekend of January 16-18 likely attracted two different types of listeners; those who never tire of hearing the standard repertoire again and again and, quite oppositely, those looking to hear new works fresh from the composer's pen. A new concerto by composer, conductor, pianist, jazz and pop artist Andre Previn just premiered last November was sandwiched in between two giants of the orchestra repertoire, the Mozart Symphony no. 35 “Haffner” and Brahms' Symphony No. 1. Michael Stern, music director conducted, with Jaime Laredo, Violin and Sharon Robinson, Cello as solos in the Previn.

The Cincinnati Symphony plus a consortium of orchestras, including the Kansas City Symphony, commissioned Previn to write the Double Concerto for Violin, Cello and Orchestra for Laredo and Robinson. Orchestras in Austin, Detroit, Los Angeles, Canada and Europe are scheduled to perform the work over the next few months.

The Double Concerto, clocking a compact 20 minutes is certainly bright, colorful (yet fairly conventionally scored) with little, if any, qualities that would offend the most conservative of listeners. Yet immediately afterward it was difficult, if not impossible, to really remember anything about the work.

The first movement “Quasi Allegretto” immediately introduces the violin and cello echoing the Brahms Double Concerto. There the comparison ends. Glowing, busy and certainly virtuosic, the movement lacks organization and seems to move from one episode and mood to another. Laredo and Robinson, long time collaborators and spouses, dig in to the busy music, keeping their lines and glowing tones above all the fray.

Part bluesy nocturne, part-heart-on sleeve romantic fantasy, the second movement marked “slow” has more emotional gravitas and, due to the slower tempo, seems to be more organized. Chains of lovely melodies abound, major key statements and swelling dynamics morph into minor key angst... yet again the movement leaves little lasting impression. The final movement, “Presto” is a fun, skittish romp ending in big honking C major chords for all assembled. The prestige and orchestras behind this work will ensure that many will hear it but to me the Double Concerto is “gone in 60 seconds”... here one second, gone the next.

Mozart's “Haffner” Symphony No. 35 in D, K.385 opened the program. Stern and the symphony reminded the audience that the work began as a serenade (not to be confused with the Serenade also known as “Haffner” in the same key, K.250) with a sprightly and spirited performance. Mozart asked that the first movement be “played with fire” and the last “as fast as possible; Stern and his forces certainly obeyed Mozart's command. Stern's graceful but not fussy “Andante” 2nd movement contrasted nicely with the energetic 1st, 3rd and 4th movements. Mozart added flutes and clarinets to the symphony's orchestration giving it a more mellow yet full texture. This touch benefited the always excellent KCS woodwinds, allowing them to contribute to an appropriately propulsive opener.

When I was introduced to the Brahms Symphony No. 1 in c op 68. my classical music mentor Herbert Glass told me that the work needs to start off “like a force of nature” or else it is a failure. Dr. Glass was a geologist by profession so he knew much about forces of nature, of course. And he is right and so was Stern and the KCS in their performance. Right from the start this was a powerful and forward performance. Not a glacier force but one like a flowing river, relentless but with control.

I am known to readers and friends as not a big fan of Brahms. Perhaps I have been exposed to too much glacier-like performances. Brahms had to be big, heavy, bulky and sometimes sweet, like a good German dinner. Stern has always gotten Johannes up from the table and out for a brisk jog in the woods, all to great benefit. Trust me, there is still great majesty and throughout, the final pages of the first movement, the opening of the finale, and the climatic pages of the “allegretto” 3rd movement, are just a few. Stern also is keen to note the change in mood and temperature the middle two movements bring to the work. He does not allow them to wallow but provides just enough contrast and release of tension to make the final movement even more persuasive.

Special mention must be made to the excellent brass performances in this work. Not all that long ago, the anticipation of a prolonged horn or trumpet solo caused great anxiety among the regulars in the hall. Not now. The horns, introducing the alphorn inspired theme, emerged glowing and golden from the low strings and tympani, followed by the dulcet flute. A minor bobble of the trumpet and trombone chorale there after marred little, the whole episode was breathtaking. The chorale theme, an homage to Beethoven, demonstrated the excellent sound of Helzberg Hall, one could hear the darker husk of the violas, bringing out a texture not often captured on a recording. Stern milked the drama from the movement's final pages, not a headlong dash but an unleashing of the once bottled up force of nature.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Best CDs of 2014... Number 14

What a dolt I am! I forgot one. Not until I was rummaging around in my CDs (after HRH Olive the Pug knocked a few over) did I remember this recording that I planned to add to my list. I can't very well knock one off  the list after publishing it, so I will just do this supplement and add #14 to the list:

Darius Milhaud The Oresteia of Aeschylus: Agamemnon, Les choëphores, Les euménides
University of Michigan Percussion Ensemble, University of Michigan Symphony Orchestra, University of  Michigan Choral Union, Kenneth Kiesler, Conductor
Naxos 660349 3 discs

A long time ago, a strange LP of a strange sounding work "Les choëphores" caught my eye. Even though conducted by the New York Philharmonic and Leonard Bernstein, it was only available as a "Columbia Special Products" LP and thus really hard to get. My local record store tried and was told it did not exist. It finally made an appearance on CD a few years ago and I picked up a copy, but it soon disappeared from the catalog. I didn't know about the Markevitch version that was on DG occasionally. My curiosity was only partly satisfied, what about the rest of the trilogy? All the years of not being able to get it made me so damn curious about it.. you know what it is like when you can't have something.... it makes it all the more intriguing.

Finally, here it is in all its. Strange, percussive, fascinating, dramatic, violent and in-your-face glory. Great sound, great performances (the Markevitch "Les chöephores" is better than the Bernstein and in some ways better than this performance, if you want to explore them) and great fun. But good grief, NO TEXTS. What a shame, but still a landmark recording.

I should be shot for forgetting this!

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Baker's Dozen Best Recordings 2014

Well! Here we are again. It is time to reflect on the past 12 months, review the defining events of 2014, recall celebrities who have passed away and of course the best of this and that. I concentrate on the latter, leaving the obits and news analysis to the talking heads of the TV. So yes, the best recordings of 2014 list is here. As usual, since the list is mine, I make the rules. These are not always brand new recordings, sometimes they are ones I heard for the first time in 2014 or dusted off my shelf. No pop or jazz, since that is not really my thing, and I am sure I have missed some “blockbusters” because the artists or repertoire were not of interest to me. No “Dude” or Sir Simon Le Rat (sic) or other “big names” recording more Mahler or whatever they are into now. You are more likely to find recordings of Havergal Brian (none this year though) or Morton Feldman (one this time around) than Bach, Beethoven or Brahms. So with all that, here are my baker's dozen favorite recordings, as usual listed in no particular order.
Britten: Works for String Orchestra Camerata Nordica, Terje Tonnesen, Director
BIS 2060

Britten tuned 100 in 2013 and of course big box releases were plentiful. With all the big guns firing, this 2013 release escaped me until this year. I have been slow to appreciate all of Britten's works; the “War Requiem”, “Peter Grimes” and “Sinfonia da Requiem” are givens, but much of his work long has baffled or left me cold. But this charming, well performed and enlightening disc opened the string orchestra works to my enjoyment. There is nothing “simple” about the “Simple Symphony”, the Bridge Variations is a masterpiece and Lachrymae is simply beyond description. Get this disc.
Yevhen (Yeven or Evgeny) Stankovych (Stankovich): Symphonies 1, 2 and 4 Theodore Kuchar, Ukraine National Symphony Orchestra
Naxos 8555741

These are actually 1995 Marco Polo recordings re-released on Naxos. I enjoy exploring the vast unknown of 20th century Russian/Soviet Bloc music. A lot of junk was produced (even by the big names) but there are many, many jewels buried in the trash heap. Ukrainian Yevhen Stankovych (seemingly the preferred spelling) is prolific yet lyrical, dramatic and listenable. Unlike many, the ghost of Shostakovich and Prokofiev is not overwhelming, but still always there. One of the jewels hidden in the pile.

Brahms and Schumann Piano Quintets Joyce Yang, Piano/Alexander String Quartet
Foghorn Classics FCL2014

The talented Alexanders and brilliant Joyce Yang take on two towers of 19th century chamber music, the Brahms Piano Quintet in f Op 34 and the Schumann Piano Quintet in Eb op 44. Frankly any recording that elicits a positive comment about Brahms from me is worth noting. No stodgy, elegant (read dull and technical) readings here, these are gutsy, lively, exciting and maybe even a bit edgy performances. Excellent production, including concise yet informative notes.

Bartók And Kodály Complete String Quartets Alexander String Quartet
Foghorn Classics FCL2009 (3 discs)

While we have the excellent Alexanders in front of us, mention must be made of this always intelligent, intense, musical, satisfying and well recorded set. Add this to the list of recordings that challenge and maybe surpass the classic Julliard recording of the Bartók cycle. Combine the fine and less well known Kodály quartets and you have a special release indeed.

Troubadour Blue: Nils Bultmann Works for Viola. Nils Bultmann, Hank Dutt violas, Parry Karp cello, Stephen Kent, didjeridu.
Innova 851

Thanks to I Care if You Listen and my fellow contributor Jarrett Goodchild, I had the notion to listen to this disc of works by San Francisco based composer/violist Nils Bultmann. Bultmann is one of the rare composers who can open your ear while not assaulting it, his music is tonal but inventive, rhythmic and visceral. The works on this recordings will both challenge and please. One simply has to hear “From the Depths” an imaginative and strikingly beautiful set of duos for viola and didjeridu and the “10 Viola Duets” for 2 violas are as often amusing as they are fascinating.

Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center: Music by Babbit, Arel, Davidovsky, Luening, El-Dabh, Ussachevsky.
Columbia/Sony 3268 (Available as an ArchivMusic on demand CD)

I remember this recording, released in 1964, from my teen years as I explored classical music. I don't think I ever owned a copy, but heard it at the library where probably most of the copies ended up. But it, along with other trail blazing recordings, led me to daydream about being an electronic music composer, which of course did not come to pass. This disc was on the cutting edge of the avant garde in the 60's, but now we giggle at the almost absurd series of bleeps, buzzes, warbles and squeals that comprise the works' electronic elements. The big names of the early electronic era are here and the compositions are representative of their time.... 50 years ago... seems like yesterday. Nostalgia for the radicals out there.

American Masters: Violin Works by Mason Bates, John Corigliano and Samuel Barber. Anne Akiko Meyers, Violin, Leonard Slatkin London Symphony Orchestra
eOne 7791

Three works for violin and orchestra from three American masters who share much more than is obvious. Barber (Violin Concerto 1939) was a mentor to Corigliano (Lullaby for Natalie 2010) who was Mason Bates' (Concerto for Violin “Archeopteryx” 2012) teacher. I reviewed this disc for I Care if You Listen in November and frankly I think I was too hard on the Bates Concerto. Further listening reveals a finely crafted, tuneful work that fits and compliments the other two works. The Barber is an utter masterpiece so maybe the others pale in comparison, but in that case, so do many others. Fine, fine recording. A keeper for sure.

Stanislaw Skrowaczewski: The Complete Oehms Classics Recordings. Music of Bruckner Brahms, Beethoven, Berlioz, Schumann, Skrowaczewski and others.  Saarbrücken Radio Symphony Orchestra,  Bavarian Radio Chorus,  Saarbrücken Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, Oehms Classics 90

The great Stanislaw Skrowaczweski turned 90 in 2013 and Oehms released this wonderful set of his recordings for them late last year. Complete Beethoven, Brahms, and Bruckner and Schumann Symphonies plus some Bartok, Berlioz, the two Chopin Piano Concerti and some of Skrowaczewski's own excellent compositions. I first heard him when he was the Music Director at Minnesota and always find his performances suave, exciting and musical. My conducting god, I drove 4 hours one way to hear him do Bruckner 8 and would do it again in a heartbeat. Lucky the performance here is first rate so I can stay in tonight.

Organ Polychrome: The French School. Jan Kraybill, Organ. Casavant Organ, Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, Kansas City, MO                                         Reference Recordings RR133

A hallmark of a great concert hall is a great organ. Not used every day, but when a work requires an organ it is nice to have one around. The Casavant here is a fine “symphonic” organ and blends well with the orchestra. As a solo it is a fine instrument, especially under the control of Jan Kraybill, who oversees it and two other wonderful organs in Kansas City. Great, idiomatic performances of many of the French masters, including Widor (thankfully not the overdone “Toccata”), Vierne, Gigout, Guilmant, Franck, Alain... et al. Lease breaking sonics to boot.

Morton Feldman String Quartet #1, Three Pieces for String Quartet, Structures for String Quartet. Flux String Quartet                                                                               Mode 269 3 discs and DVD

At a mere 90 minutes instead of the 6 hours required for String Quartet # 2, # 1 is a trifle. But what a trifle; serene, glowing, glacial, energetic, softly ringing.... one incredible sound after another. Feldman is an acquired taste, but like that of scotch, anchovies or whatever... it is worth it for those in the know. The recording perfectly captures all the subtle changes in dynamics and harmonics. The DVD allows you to hear the whole quartet without interruption. Three Pieces and Structures are also vintage Feldman and are much, much shorter. It is a cold, misty dark December evening as I write this... I think I will pull this disc out... it fits.

Miraculous Metamorphoses: Bartok, Miraculous Mandarin Suite, Prokofiev, Love for Three Oranges Suite, Hindemith, Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes by Carl Maria von Weber. Kansas City Symphony, Michael Stern. 
Reference Recordings RR132

Performances that can stand with the best of them and sonics that sound fabulous even on my computer speakers combine for another Reference Recordings/Kansas City Symphony “hit”. One also has to give the Kansas City Symphony, Reference Recordings and all involved great credit for daring to record major standard repertoire pieces that often have some very heady competition.

Shostakovich Symphony # 14 (1969) Gal James, Soprano, Alexander Vinogradov Bass Vasily Petrenko Royal Liverpool Philharmonic                                                         Naxos 8.573132

Overall, an excellent performance but I still can not live without the Barshai led performances with Vishnevskaya/Reshetin or with Simoni/Vaneev in the Cologne recording. Barshai was there at the beginning and had the music in his veins. The Curtin/Estes Ormandy is a sentimental favorite, with some of the most impressively ghoulish cover art ever devised. I thought the Liverpool strings were a bit weak and James less impressive than Vinogradov, but other critics disagreed. Overall a fine addition to the Shostakovich canon.

Shostakovich Symphony # 13 “Babi Yar” Alexander Vinogradov, Bass, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic and Chorus                                                                               Naxos 8.573218 

If the 14th was a fine recording, then the powerful 13th was perfection. Vinogradov is dark, brooding, frightening and frightened with deep voice that is still clarion clear. The chorus is not as idiomatic as a fine Russian ensemble, but is clear and present, well blended with the other forces. This is also one recording that does not let down after the long and dramatic first movement, the other four are equal in their drama and pathos. Great performance and a fitting end to a fine cycle. Petrenko is just 38 so he may yet have an even finer cycle in store some day.