Classical CD Highlights: August

Classic Arts News   Classical CD Highlights: August
Marin Alsop, the Baltimore Symphony's newly named music director-designate, conducts Kurt Weill; two labels offer intriguing looks back at the great George Szell.

Weill: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2 (Naxos 8.557481)
Tower: In Memory, Big Sky, Wild Purple, other works (Naxos 8.559215)
Music for Flute and Percussion (Naxos 8.557782)

Marin Alsop's appointment last month as music director of the Baltimore Symphony touched off bitter squabbling between the orchestra's management and musicians. There's been no controversy, however, about Alsop's work with England's Bournemouth Symphony. Her success in rejuvenating that orchestra has burnished her already considerable reputation and no doubt was a factor in Baltimore's decision to hire her. Alsop puts her Bournemouth orchestra through its paces in a new Naxos release containing two major works by Kurt Weill. Symphony No. 1, written in 1921, is a craggy, youthful piece reflecting the tumult of Weimar Germany. The second Symphony, composed in Paris in 1933 after Weill escaped Hitler's regime, is considered by many to be a neglected masterwork. Another side of Weill is on display in Lady in the Dark: A Symphony Nocturne, a brooding and melodic work adapted from a 1940 Broadway musical by Weill, Moss Hart, and Ira Gershwin.

Joan Tower, like Alsop a leading American musician who happens to be a woman, is also featured by Naxos this month. A stellar lineup of musicians—the Tokyo String Quartet, pianist Ursula Oppens, violist Paul Neubauer, the composer herself, and others—performs a selection of Tower's colorful and energetic chamber and piano works. The disc includes the string quartet In Memory, a piece inspired by the victims of September 11; Big Sky, a landscape portrait; and Wild Purple, a tour-de-force for viola. If you're looking for something unusual, Naxos also offers a program of music for the unusual combination of flute and percussion, performed by Marc Grauwels and Marie-Jos_e Simard. The disc includes works by Piazzolla, Wilder, P‹rt, and Ravi Shankar. Piazzolla's The History of the Tango is a major work dedicated to Grauwels.

Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 3; Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 3 (RCA Victor 67894 )
Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 5 and 6 (RCA Victor 67898)
Chopin: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2 (RCA Victor 67902)

Sony-BMG adds 10 titles to its highly regarded Living Stereo series, which offers remastered early LPs from the RCA Victor archive complete with technicolor 1950s-style cover art. The new discs, all in the hybrid CD-SACD format, include three titles that are appearing on Living Stereo CDs for the first time: Van Cliburn tackling Rachmaninoff's notoriously difficult Piano Concerto No.3, along with the Third Piano Concerto of Prokofiev; the elegant Charles Munch leading the Boston Symphony in Beethoven's Fifth and Sixth Symphonies; and Artur Rubuinstein performing the two Chopin Piano Concertos. The other Living Stereo releases, which rejoin the catalog in the new hybrid format, include performances by Heifetz, Reiner, Fiedler, Stokowski, and Anna Moffo.

George Szell, Decca & Philips Recordings 1951-69 (Decca B0004910)
Schumann: Symphony No. 2; Strauss: Don Juan (Testament SBT 1378)

Also from the archives comes a multi-disc set containing all the symphonic recordings that the legendary George Szell made for Decca and Philips. Although he is best-known for the records he and the Cleveland Orchestra made for Epic and Columbia Masterworks in the 1960s, Szell was also active in Europe, where he committed a number of standard works to disc with the Vienna Philharmonic, Amsterdam Concertgebouw, and London Symphony orchestras. This new set includes favorite symphonies by Beethoven, Brahms, Dvoršk, Mozart, Sibelius, and Tchaikovsky plus works by Handel, Mendelssohn, and Schubert. Szell also appears in a Testament release that documents his last concert with the Berlin Philharmonic, taped in June 1969. Still sprightly at 70, Szell, a longtime proponent of the Schumann symphonies, leads that composer's Second as well as Strauss' Don Juan and Brahms' Academic Festival Overture.

Biber: Missa Christi resurgentis (Harmonia Mundi 907397)
Biber: Violin Sonatas (CPO 777124)
J.S. Bach, J.C. Bach, C.P.E. Bach: Vocal Works (Archiv)

Two new releases feature music by the 17th-century composer Heinrich Biber. Andrew Manze and the English Concert recently performed Biber's newly rediscovered Missa Christi resurgentis to critical acclaim; their interpretation is now available on a Harmonia Mundi CD. Biber is known primarily for his instrumental works, particularly his florid music for violin. On this period-instrument recording, several of these instrumental pieces are interspersed among the movements of the mass, emulating a practice common in Biber's day. Manze, a Baroque violin virtuoso, plays as well as conducts. CPO presents more Biber in a release featuring sonatas performed by Anton Steck, a specialist in 17th century violin repertory.

Magdalena Kozenš offers a disc containing works by J. S. Bach and two of his more accomplished sons. The mezzo-soprano, who was Gramophone magazine's 2004 artist of the year, is developing a reputation as a Bach interpreter. Her last disc, a collection of 20th-century songs, drew excellent reviews, and this Bach disc is already winning plaudits in Europe.

Weber: Oberon (Philips B0004646)
Studio recordings of complete operas are rare these days and so are performances of Weber operas. John Eliot Gardiner managed to gather an international cast before the microphones for a reading of the mystical drama Oberon. Best known today for its tuneful overture, Oberon is considered an important link between the operatic worlds of Mozart and Wagner. Swedish soprano Hillevi Martinpelto, German tenor Jonas Kaufmann, and Australian tenor Steve Davislim star in this recording, which was made following a series of acclaimed concert performances.

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 13 ("Babi Yar") (EMI 7243557902)
Dvoršk: Tone Poems (EMI 7243558019)

A couple of major orchestral releases from EMI round out the month. Conductor Mariss Jansons, bass Sergei Aleksashkin, and the Bavarian Radio Symphony perform Shostakovich's searing Symphony No. 13, a setting of Yevtushenko's poem about the Nazi massacre at Babi Yar. And Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic offer four tuneful Dvoršk tone poems inspired by legends: The Water Goblin, The Noon Witch, The Golden Spinning Wheel, and The Wood Dove.

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