A WEALTH OF RADIANT MUSIC FOR THE HOLIDAYS

By Lawrence Budmen

As holiday time approaches a plethora of interesting new classical releases dot the recording landscape. Familiar repertoire in fresh and vibrant performances and fascinating scores from the musical byways make for stimulating listening.

Many South Floridians will remember conductor James Conlon. Conlon was principal guest conductor of the old Miami Philharmonic Orchestra for several seasons in the 1970's. Even as a young graduate of New York's Julliard School, Conlon was a conductor of immense authority who commanded intense performances from any ensemble he directed. He has spent the past quarter century in Europe where he has been music director of the Rotterdam Philharmonic, the Cologne Philharmonic, and the State Opera of Cologne. In recent years he has been principal conductor of the Paris Opera. The announcement that Conlon is returning to the U.S. coincides with a group of brilliant new recordings. (Conlon becomes music director of the Chicago Symphony's summer season at Ravinia and will direct a multi-season retrospective of Holocaust era composers in New York, as well as his continuing work as director of the Cincinnati May Festival.) 

Conlon has championed the music of Alexander von Zemlinsky (1871-1942). A new EMI recording of that composer's massive "Lyric Symphony" reveals a soaring vocal-orchestral score of shattering emotional power (www.Emimusic.de). This is a work that rivals "Das Lied van Der Erde" for sheer heartbreaking musical depth. (Zemlinsky was part of Mahler's circle). Conlon draws a brilliant, dramatic performance from his Cologne orchestra and his vocal soloists are top drawer. The shimmering voice of soprano Soile Isokoski is simply glorious. The dark, rich voice of baritone Bo Skovhus brings back memories of the great Hermann Prey. Russian violinist Vladimir Spivakov (who has appeared in Miami with the New World Symphony and his own Moscow Virtuosi) collaborates with Conlon on a nearly definitive version of the "Violin Concerto No.1 in A Minor," Opus 77 by Dimitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)on the Capriccio label (www.Capriccioclassics.com). Spivakov plays with blazing virtuosity and dramatic fervor. This austere Shostakovich work is music of pain and desolation. Spivakov and Conlon give a moving performance of this 20th century masterpiece. Conlon's arrangement of music from Shostakovich's opera "Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk" is a great bonus. When composer Viktor Ullmann (1898-1944) was murdered at Auschwitz, the world lost a true genius. Apropos of his coming series of Holocaust related concerts, Conlon's new Capriccio recording of Ullmann's two symphonies (completed by Bernhard Wulff) and 6 Lieder - all music composed at the Terezin concentration camp - is superb. This music is by turns dark and somber, neo-classical, defiant, and rigorous. Juliane Banse is the bright voiced soprano soloist in the songs which show strong influences of Schoenberg and Kurt Weill. 

The music of Weill is featured in the first releases of the Milken Archive on the enterprising Naxos label (www.Naxos.com). Weill's first American work "The Eternal Road," a 1937 music drama to a libretto by Franz Werfel (husband of Mahler's widow Alma and author of "Song of Bernadette") is revived in a history making recording. This long lost score is magnificent! The music looks back to the contrapuntal choral writing of Johann Sebastian Bach and forward to Weill's Broadway hits "Lady in the Dark" and "One Touch of Venus" - a real musical treasure! The superb Gerard Schwarz (music director of the Seattle Symphony) leads the forces of the Berlin Radio in a magnificent performance. It is wonderful to hear the radiant soprano of Constance Hauman (who was a delightful Susanna in "The Marriage of Figaro" for Florida Grand Opera in the late 1980's) and the ringing tones of tenor Ian DeNolfo - standouts in an excellent cast. Elmar Oliveira may be the most underated violinist on the concert scene today. This dazzling virtuoso (a Gold Medal winner in Russia's Tchaikovsky Competition) plays the "Violin Concerto No.1," Opus 60 by Joseph Achron (1886-1943) in a Naxos album of works by that composer. This showpiece is Judaic Prokofieff - a luminous, sinewy display piece. Oliveira's powerhouse performance is given stalwart support by the Berlin Radio Symphony under Joseph Silverstein, a familiar presence in Miami in recent seasons. Another familiar musical voice in South Florida James Judd directs the New Zealand Symphony in music of the British master Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) for Naxos. The "Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis," a 1910 score, is music of intense spiritual uplift. Judd and his New Zealand musicians give a glowing, rich toned interpretation of this string orchestra gem. The 1950 "Concerto Grosso" finds Vaughan Williams in a lighter mood - a lively divertissement in a scintillating performance.

Chicago's Cedille Records (www.Cedillerecords.org) is an innovative label that offers gifted artists in refreshingly offbeat repertoire. The "Violin Concerto No.2 in D Minor," Opus 11 ("In the Hungarian Style") by Joseph Joachim (1831-1907) may well be a masterpiece. This wild Magyar music was revived in the 1970's by violinist Aaron Rosand and UM and the Mainly Mozart Festival's Frank Cooper. All this music needs is a violinist with staggering virtuosity and endless stamina. Chicago based violinist Rachel Barton is simply magnificent on this new cd. Her warmly burnished tone and powerful fiddling are real showstoppers. She also gives a ravishing performance of the familiar Brahms "Violin Concerto in D Major," Opus 77. The great Chicago Symphony Orchestra plays beautifully under the dynamic conductor Carlos Kalmar. This recording is a must for all violin aficionados! Cedille's house soprano Patrice Michaels is featured on an album of delightful French songs by Erik Satie, Germaine Tailleferre, and Darius Milhaud (of "Les Six") and the beautiful "Les Illuminations" by Benjamin Britten (1913-1976). Ms. Michaels's bright toned, effortlessly produced voice is a joy to hear. The subtlety and musicality of her singing are the mark of a great artist! The gifted Paul Freeman leads the Czech National Symphony Orchestra in supple accompaniments. 

In more familiar repertoire Pinchas Zukerman plays a gleaming Mozart "Violin Concerto No.5 in A Major," ("Turkish) and leads the National Arts Center Orchestra in patrician performance of Mozart's "Symphony No.29," and "Divertimento in D Major," for CBC Records (www.Cbcrecords.cbc.ca). The dynamic Scottish maestro Donald Runnicles directs the superb Atlanta Symphony in a lithe, streamlined Beethoven 9th Symphony (with the angelic voice of soprano Mary Dunleavy and the firm, rich tones of bass Alastair Miles as standout soloists) for Telarc (www.Telarc.com). And what better music for the holidays than the operetta overtures and waltzes of Franz Lehar (1870-1948) on a new CPO release (www.Cpo.de). Rousing performances by Russian conductor Michail Jurowski and the Berlin Radio Orchestra are a joy to hear! Just listen to the Overture to "Clo-Clo" and the "Valse Boston - Wild Roses" and you will become a believer in three quarter time. Great music, splendid performances - delightful listening for the holidays or any time of year! 

 


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