It is ironic that the very first CD I heard on the Hyperion Label was one that I did not like. Ironic because Hyperion has grown to be the dominant force in my music collection. I rely on them for first rate recordings of artists and composers of every stripe. Not only is the music always of first rate quality, but the sleeve notes are generally extensive in multiple languages, and they have also started up several extensive groundbreaking series such as the Romantic Piano Concerto series, or the Liszt Piano Music series. Further, they continue to explore the music of British composer Robert Simpson which I adore. If you don't have anything from Hyperion Records, then you must change this immediately.
Adolf von Henselt
Études Op. 2 and Op. 5
Piano: Piers LaneTrack Listing:
Henselt's name was once widely known throughout Europe, but his name quickly faded after his death in 1889. He left behind only a handful of works, almost all of which were for the piano. The two sets of etudes, and the poem make up a large portion of that output. They are each excellent examples of the new Romantic ideals sweeping Europe, and while in many ways they seem to be compilations of ideas of other composers (as the liner notes explain at great length), they are also highly original and bear a similar sound. Henselt's voice is clear in these pieces. However, for me, that similarity is what makes listening to this CD difficult. Each piece on its own is quite delightful and enjoyable, but taken as a whole, I tend to hope the CD will just end after an hour of listening. That siad, Piers Lane's pianism is unquestionable, and for any collector of piano music, this should not be missed. Otherwise, there is a lot else out there you are better off spending your money on.
Dmitri Shostakovich and Rodion Shchedrin
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andrew Litton
Piano: Marc-André HamelinTrack Listing:
Dmitri Shostakovich is better known for his Symphonies, but he did write two piano concertos. Neither are major works in his output, but both are delightful and easy to enjoy. The second in particular, falling into the category of the Soviet Youth Concerto (and likely familiar to many through the movie Fantasia 2000). The first Concerto infuses jazz elements in a subtle way into the work, which features a solo trumpet as well. I have another recording of these works, but on the whole, I think I find this recording the more immediately compelling and engaging.
Rodion Shchedrin is not a familiar name, though he is one of the most recent generations of composer who have attempted t combine the role of concert pianist and composer into one. He has to date written six piano Concertos. His second, recorded here, is a delicious romp through many musical styles, but all of thme presented in a wholly logical way. We are treated to twelve tone melodies, freakish nightmare music, and then restaraunt jazz combos that all seamlessly lead from one to the other. On the whole, a surprising and satisfying work.
String Quartets 5, 7 & 9
St Petersburg String QuartetTrack Listing:
Shostakovich was equally prolific in the genre of String Quartet as he was with the Symphony. While his String Quartets are more subdued and lighter fare, he nevertheless made many deeply personal statements within them. In listening to these works, I attempted to feel that thoughts and emotions that are wrought into the melodies and harmonies. I found all four works easily accesible, and the interpretation of the St. Petersburg String Quartet quite facile. The liner notes on this CD convey far better than I could hope to do what Shostakovich was up to. If you are interested in String Quartets or Shostakovich, then definitely buy this CD. You will not regret it.
Symphony No. 1 and Symphony No. 8
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vernon HandleyTrack Listing:
Robert Simpson's symphonic oevure began earlier than his first numbered symphony. There were four previous symphonies that he wrote, but then rejected in his youth. His first Symphony then, can be seen as a confident expression, one that the master compsoer felt sure of. And that confidence brims in the first introductory trumpet call with which the symphony begins. One can see the brass musician in this work, full of bright trumpets and brilliant horn lines. Strings and brass combine together to be the instruments that move this work along, althouigh the woodwinds have their turn too. The symphony is notable for being in one continous pulse, but the note lengths increase in the middle of the single movement work to give the impression of three movements, each following the other. The piece bristles with energy and youthful enthusiasm.
The Eighth Symphony inhabits a different world. It was written, according to Robert Simpson, with a few express people in mind who he knew would be in the audience, much like the Haydn symphonies of earlier centuries. It begisn quietly with a flute line but builds up in short order to a heavy Scherzo that is relentless in its pounding drive. The Adagio brings a sense of calm back to the disturbed waters of the Symphony, but the Finale once more fills us with an undeniable sense of power and energy. Simpson shows that he understands these concepts very well, for the Eighth is a darker work, filled with violence and rage. It ends on a series of beaten chords that leave one wondering if he was going to go just one more.
The Romantic Piano Concerto No. 2
Piano Concerto No 2 in C Minor and Piano Concerto No. 3 in E Minor
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jerzy Maksymiuk
Piano: Nikolai DemidenkoTrack Listing:
Medtner's name is far from a household name, but after hearing these works, I am shocked that it is at the very least not more well-known. He was a contemporary of Rachmaninoff, and even dedicated his 2nd Concerto to him (while Rachmaninoff dedicated his 4th Concerto to Medtner). Medtner's musical language is thoroughly Romantic, but he has a tendency to turn his massive Concertos into a musical journey moreso than his fellow Russian. Only the 2nd Concerto is in a standard three movement form. But what magic Medtner works in that form! His first movement is a Toccata bristling with non-top energy that had me sitting on the edge of my seat the first time I heard it. The Romanza is no less captivating, though more for the lushness of his melodies and orchestration. And the Divertimento finale wraps everything up in a dazzling display of pianism and melodic invention. All in all, a truly satisfying work that I must say is my second favourite Piano Concerto of all time.
Medtner's 3rd Concerto is written in one continuous movement that begins softly with a simple idea that develops into a novella. We feel as if we are being led on a journey of discovery along with the pianist as his ideas are transformed. At once wistful, his ideas seem to be the path of youth as it grows in wisdom, faces adversity, and yet in the end triumphs both physically as well as existentially. The Concerto ends with a constant certainty that makes you wish Medtner had written a 4th Concerto. Buy this CD now.
The Romantic Piano Concerto No. 3
The Two Piano Concertos
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jerzy Maksymiuk
Pianos: Stephen Coombs and Ian MunroTrack Listing:
Mendelssohn wrote two concertos for two pianos and orchestra. Given that Hyperion's stated goal in the Romantic Piano Concerto series was to highlight Concertos that had been unjustly neglected, I must confes sI was surprised to see them choose these works by Mendelssohn for their third installment. While not on the forefront of the literature, I had seen recordings of them before. However, I am delighted to have a good solid recording of them, for I am quite taken by the A Flat Major Concerto. I simply love the main theme in the third movement. I could listen to that one for an hour without tiring of it. The E Major Concerto is also nice, but it is less attractive for me. Either way, both Concertos display Mendelssohn's gift for melody and surprising harmonic twists. Excellent addition to any classical collection.
Ernö (Ernst von) Dohnányi
The Romantic Piano Concerto No. 6
Piano Concerto No 1 in E Minor and Piano Concerto No. 2 in B Minor
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Fedor Glushchenko
Piano: Martin RoscoeTrack Listing:
In the early part of his career, Dohnányi was known more for his pianism than his composition. Now, in retrospect, his compositional genius is being rediscovered. His first Piano Concerto won the Bösendorfer prize, and is a monumental work full of Brahmsian charm and rich Hungarian drama. The first movement introduces us to a slow theme played tutti, before breaking off into the allegro proper. After a great deal of development in which the piano has many opportunities to show its expressive capabilities, the slow theme is reintroduced, and the movement comes to a quiet and yet exultant close. The second movement is very delicate, with mostly pizzicato acocmpaniement for the piano. It ends with a Picardy third, an old trick used to great effect. The last movement is a boistrous finale full of thirds and sixths in the Piano.
The Second Piano Concerto is a more compact work, written in three continuous movements. After a short orchestral introduction, the piano enters and states the main theme of the entire concerto. Though the work is more restrained than the first concerto (and written near the end of Dohnányi's life instead of at the beginning), it nevertheless exudes charm and power. After the final climax, the first movement grows quiet and contemplative as it leads directly into the Adagio. The second movement is quiet, with Hungarian flavour. I have a hard time pinning exact words upon it, for its character is, though clearly in a minor key, nevertheless warm. A repeated note speeds up to the finale, dashed with a minor second clash. The opening theme returns at an even quicker pace, and everything that had been said before returns with fierce determination. Unlike the first concerto though, we are not in the major here, but firmly minor, and with a short sharp minor chord, the orchestra brings the concerto to a close like a door slam.
The Romantic Piano Concerto No. 22
Piano Concerto in C Major Op. XXXIX
The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by Mark Elder
Piano: Marc-André HamelinTrack Listing:
The greatest of all Piano Concertos is displayed in sterling quality in this, the twenty second volume in the award-winning Romantic Piano Concerto series. Busoni's masterwork towers over all other entries in the genre at a massive seventy-five minutes. It does not possess the stormy bravura of Brahms's first concerto, but it does hold a measure of the stateliness of Brahms's second. However, it is transformed into something more noble and transcendant by Busoni. The first movement is bold and dramatic, yet peaceful at the same time. The second movement is sprightly, but full-throated with mischief. The third is dreamlike and filled with restrained melancholy. The fourth is boisterous with the hint of something darker trying to bubble up to the surface. And the final movement is introspective and exalted. The final culmination of te piece fills me with such excitement that more often than not I cannot restrain my cheer of joy at the last triumphant chord. Mr. Hamelin proves that he is quite adroit in this recording, and I believe he has made some of the passagework more crisp and clear htan John Ogdon did (and this was the piece that Ogdon championed more than any other), but he has lost some of the rich power that Ogdon brought to the keyboard. Nevertheless, I would give away half my collection before parting with this recording. It is that good.
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