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Chopin’s Piano concerto in E minor, Op. 11 – Work No. 83 in our collection

Frédéric François Chopin (01.03.1810 – 17.10.1849) was a Polish piano virtuoso and composer of the Romantic era. Before his death at the age of 39, Chopin wrote some of the instrument’s most intimate, memorable works. All of his compositions include the piano. Most are for solo piano, though he also wrote two piano concertos, a few chamber pieces, and nineteen songs set to Polish lyrics. His piano writing was technically demanding and took the instrument to new limits. As a performer he played with a high degree of nuance and sensitivity.
Chopin wrote mazurkas, waltzes, nocturnes, polonaises, études, impromptus, scherzos, preludes and sonatas for the piano and he is credited with the introduction of the instrumental ballade.

Some composers, unlike Mozart and Beethoven, though perfectly competent at the keyboard, were somewhat inept at composing for the orchestra. Some would say that Chopin was one such. Certainly Chopin showed little enthusiasm for composing for the orchestra and both of his piano concertos were written during his youth before he left Poland.

Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor, Op. 11 was in fact the second of the concertos to be written but it happened to be published first. Listening to this deeply expansive and expressive work, one could be forgiven for thinking that this was the work of a composer who has reached full emotional and musical maturity. In fact it was first performed on 11 October 1830, in Warsaw, with the twenty year old composer as soloist, during one of his “farewell” concerts before leaving Poland. This concerto is best known for its lyrical middle movement; the Romanze, but it also contains many melodic delights in the two outer movements. It’s unashamedly heart-on-your-sleeve stuff, with the rich sounds of the piano accompanied by some gloriously rich string accompaniment.

There are a number of fine versions of this concerto available, frequently coupled with Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor, Op. 21. Daniel Barenboim’s live recording with the Staatskapelle Berlin and conductor Andris Nelsons is a particular favourite. But it is Martha Argerich to whom we turn for our top recommendation; again in a live recording. Her 1998 account, captured in the wonderful acoustic of L’Église de St. Eustache, Montréal, with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and conductor Charles Dutoit is the one to go for rather than her 1968 version which lacks the wit, spontaneity and allure of the later version.

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Price Symphonies contain echoes of Dvořák

Florence Beatrice Price: Symphonies Nos. 1 & 4

Fort Smith Symphony, John Jeter

Florence Price was the first African-American woman to have her music performed by a major symphony orchestra and on the evidence of this CD she was a composer of some talent.

On this release in the American Classics series on Naxos we get performances of Price’s first and last symphonies. Her Symphony No. 1 in E minor won a composing prize and was first performed in 1933 by the Chicago Symphony led by Frederick Stock. It was was the first symphony, by an African-American woman to have been played by a major American orchestra. Her Symphony No. 4 in D minor gets a world premiere recording here having been recently discovered among nearly 30 boxes of manuscripts and papers found in Chicago.

Both of these symphonies contains echoes of Dvořák. The opening movement of the first symphony with its portentous sweep and lyrical melodies is reminiscent of Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95 ‘From the New World’. In this early work there are signs that Price is still finding her voice but in this account by John Jeter and the Arkansa based Fort Smith Symphony this massive nearly 40-minute work is well worth becoming acquainted with and is certainly to be prefered to the Leslie B. Dunner version on Albany. The fourth symphony, quotes one of the most famous spirituals, Wade in the Water in its  opening movement and ends with a bustling Scherzo that alternates serious and lighthearted episodes, before ending ending with a bang. Each of the symphonies is in the traditional four movement structure but Florence Price replaces the third movement scherzo by a ‘Juba Dance’.

Florence Price was celebrated in her day and her music was well received in Chicago. Since her untimely death in 1953 her works have fallen into neglect and will probably be unfamiliar to most readers. So should you be seeking out this disc? Florence Price’s style is steeped in the romantic tradition of Brahms and Dvořák and her musical language is a fascinating blend of European genres and African-American musical content. The Fort Smith Symphony deliver idiomatic performances of these pleasing works and this can be recommended both as an introduction to the music of Florence Price and as a means of becoming further acquainted with a composer who is clearly unjustifiably neglected. Hopefully this release will prompt a resurgence of interest in this composer and we can hope for further recordings of works discovered in those boxes.

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Jennifer Pike explores her Polish heritage

The Polish Violin

Jennifer Pike (violin) & Petr Limonov (piano)

Former BBC Young Musician of the Year, Jennifer Pike is joined by her regular duo partner, the Russian-British pianist Petr Limonov to explore an interesting selection of works for violin and piano written by Polish composers.

The major part of the album is given over to works by Szymanowski, who most would consider to be the greatest of the composers represented here. The recital immediately takes us into an exotic and mystical world, beginning as it does with with Szymanowski’s most popular work, Mythes (1915); a cycle of three miniatures whose titles come from Greek mythology. The mood of the fantastic vision of the nymph Arethusa, turned into a stream, fleeing from Alpheus; of Narcissus, in love with his reflection in the pool, turned into a flower; of the dancing dryads and Pan playing his pipes – is superbly realised by this pairing.  This team manage not only the sophisticated, and at times extraordinarily complicated harmony, but also Jennifer Pike tackles the varied articulation in the violin part, with its plethora of trills and glissandos combined with tremolos, and flageolets with great aplomb. In this work Szymanowski, unshackled from classical patterns of composition, created a new world of free, poetic fantasy of sound in which Pike and Limonov immerse themselves to great effect.

From Szymanowski we also get his short Nocturne & Tarantella, Op. 28 with Jennifer Pike’s elegant lines soaring high above the piano accompaniment. Both in the veiled contours of the Nocturne and the explosion of rhythmic energy that follows it in the Tarantella Pike captures the mood of the work to perfection. The rhapsodic and exotic Romance in D major, Op. 23 makes me think of Chopin’s Nocturnes and there is also an attractive arrangement of Chant de Roxane from Król Roger by Paul Kochanski .

Other less frequently heard gems include Karlowicz’ Impromptu, the romantic style of which reflects a strong influence of Tchaikovsky. Moszkowski’s Piano Pieces, Op. 45 No. 2, Guitarre in G Major, performed in an arrangement for violin and piano by Sarasate, introduces variety to the album; being of quite a different character to the accompanying works. From Wieniawski we get his showpiece Légende in G minor, Op. 17 which is more usually heard in its version for violin and orchestra; though I do recall David Oistrakh playing it as an encore. We also get the same composer’s Polonaise brilliante No. 1 in D major, Op. 4 in the version for violin and piano. The lyrical middle section of this piece is varied in character, taking on virtuoso airs in the form of flageolet notes, double notes, leaps, broken triads in regular rhythm and ornaments that Jennifer appears to play with consummate ease. This justifiably popular work brings this fine CD to an enjoyable close.

All of the composers on this disc (Karlowicz, Szymanowski, Wieniawski, and Moszkowski) were talented musicians as well as composers, who wrote technically demanding compositions for the violin. Jennifer Pike plays all of the works with complete control and moreover a deep feeling for the music. Combine this with the sympathetic accompaniment of Petr Limonov and the appropriate acoustic of Potton Hall captured in high quality sound by the Chandos engineers and you have a sure fire winner. Strongly recommended to all collectors who are willing to stray from the popular classics – this has to be one of my favourite discs of the year so far.

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Superb Roman Trilogy from JoAnn Falletta

Respighi: Roman Trilogy

Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, JoAnn Falletta

This CD begins with the final work of the Trilogy, Roman Festivals (1928), which is the longest and  most ambitious of the three, yet the one that has least impact on me. Nonetheless, in an excellent performance, captured in great sound, it gets the programme off to an enjoyable start. The first section illustrates gladiatorial combat in the Roman Circus, and the final section brings a riot of sound in La Befana (The Epiphany), with clashing rhythms one against the other. JoAnn Falletta draws from the orchestra a suitable sense of swing in key moments of this work and creates a sense of Mediterranean sunshine and a feeling of abandon that sets the listener up for the remaining two works.

After the lively start we get an opportunity to cool down beside the fountains. The Fountains of Rome (1915 – 1916) is a musical picture postcard, with each of the four linked sections warmly evocative in describing the fountains of the Valle Giulia at dawn, of the Tritone at midday, of the Trevi in the afternoon and of the Villa Medici at sunset. This was the work which first established Respighi as a master of orchestration; although it took Toscanini’s promotion of the work for this became generally recognized. At the first fountain, Falletta draws us into a serene pastoral scene with the sound of distant cowbells and a hint of Middle Eastern modality. Suddenly we are catapulted into the Triton Fountain at Morn and the horns abruptly wake the water creatures and we feel the naiads splashing and spouting. As we arrive at the Trevi at Midday in this performance we can really sense Neptune, in all of his glory, being triumphantly driven in his magnificent chariot. Finally we get to the Villa Medici Fountain at Sunset with its urbanity, artistry and holiness. In this work of contrasting aural vignettes Falletta captures so expertly the disorientation that I experience in Rome, an unsettling feeling that I am not quite certain in what century I am living.

The programme sensibly concludes with The Pines of Rome (1924) – the second and most popular work of the Trilogy. The work begins by painting a boisterous picture of children playing beneath the Pines of the Villa Borghese and Falletta obtains a gloriously shimmering tone from the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra. The he third of the four sections, The Pines of Gianicolo, with its innovative use of the sound of the song of a nightingale, is played most beautifully on this recording. As the brass section plays powerfully in the final section, The Pines of the Appian Way, one can really sense the tramp of Roman legions and you almost expect a Roman centurion to appear before you! A stirring end to a tremendous release that you really must experience – at bargain price this is unmissable.

JoAnn Falletta and her players in the Buffalo Philharmonic seem to go from strength to strength in these releases from Naxos and I’m sure that all collectors will be really grateful for this latest addition to the catalogue. This disc will stand proudly on my shelves alongside great versions of this trilogy by Toscanini, Bernstein, Reiner, and Kempe.

Just turn it up loud, to get the full benefit, and sit back and enjoy!

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