Saturday, March 24, 2012

CDs received

From Arkiv Music, a fine source for classical CDs if you already know what you're looking for - for one thing, its search format eliminates the frustrations of near-duplicate work titles and ambiguous album labeling endemic in classical music, which are such a pitfall in keyword searching on other sites - I've picked up CDs of four works that have long been on my want list.

Camille Saint-Saëns, Suite Algérienne. Marco Guidarini, Nice Philharmonic (with works by Jules Massenet and Gustave - not Marc-Antoine! - Charpentier).
I have this work on an old LP, but the performance was deficient. I kept it anyway because at the time it was the only complete recording available of this charming and rarely-heard work. Saint-Saëns spent a lot of time (mostly for his health) in then-French Algeria, but this, like so much other 19C music depicting landscapes foreign to the composer, is scenic picture-painting rather than adaptations of indigenous music. The first three movements are all beautiful, and increasingly memorable, culminating in a passionately intense slow movement. But then they are all, quite unfairly, simply blown out of the water by the incredibly catchy finale, a French Military March which has become a pops favorite and is the only part of this suite you ever usually get to hear. (Very well played on the album, and not nearly this insanely fast.) It was thinking "If this is so great, what's the rest of the suite like?" that led me to look for the complete work in the first place.
Strangely, although this is a fine performance, and I already liked the rest of this work, I had to learn to like it all over again by playing it several times before it clicked. Now I'm distracted and haven't yet gotten to the rest of the album.

Alondra de la Parra (conductor), Mi Alma Mexicana = My Mexican Soul. Philharmonic Orchestra of the Americas. Music by Chavez, Revueltas, Moncayo, Ponce, and a bunch of people you haven't heard of.
What I wanted this for was a good recording of the Danzon No. 2 by Márquez and some other Mexican pops favorites that wasn't by Gustavo Dudamel's Venezuelan students, who are very good but not professional. Since this is a 2-album set, I got a lot of other 20C ultra-Mexican nationalist stuff along with it, interesting but not in the same class, and a few late 19C works. Although the late 19C was the heyday of nationalist music in Europe, that news hadn't reached the Mexicans yet, who were still composing soggy late-Romantic salon pieces. Imagine my surprise when one of them turns out to be the origin of this famous hoary old circus tune.

Henry Cowell, String Quartets No. 2-4. Beaux Arts Quartet (with Homage to Iran).
I heard Cowell's United Quartet (No. 4) in concert a few years ago, and was immediately and utterly won over by what I described in my review as its "whining modal rhythmic primitivism ... like Alan Hovhaness on the proverbial acid." Too bad it's never been recorded, I thought. But it had. It was on a CRI LP back in 1963 or so, and all those LPs have been re-released on CD by New World. I must have this.
Blimey, it was like Saint-Saëns again, only more so. I don't know if it's the performance, or what, but the qualities that so appealed to me on the spot when the Colorado Quartet played it live had to be eked out slowly over repeated listenings from this CD, and, even now, only the concluding march do I feel I really get in this rendition. Too bad the Colorado Quartet hasn't recorded it, then.
The other quartets date from the same period, and No. 3 in particular seems to have a similar, if less quirky, character. (The Colorado has recorded that.) I'd go to this in concert like a shot.

Roy Harris, Symphonies No. 5 and 6. Marin Alsop, Bournemouth Symphony.
This is Harris in his sweet spot, after he emerged from his rugged early Ivesian period and before his talent began to run out of gas. These are the two symphonies he wrote during WW2, both of them broad, spanning efforts in the tonal American nationalist style that was flourishing in these years. No. 6 is especially luminous - I'd heard it before, and it's my favorite Harris work - and must have been impressive in concert. It's dedicated to the centennial of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, while No. 5 was dedicated to our noble Soviet ally. Oh, well. Good performances of this raw American music from a British orchestra. Maybe they heard some premonitions of the symphonies of Sir Malcolm Arnold, because I certainly do.

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