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Mozart’s Requiem in D minor, K626 – Work No. 84 in our collection

The Austrian composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (27.01.1756 – 05.12.1791) was, during his short lifetime, one of the most prolific composers of the classical era. He showed prodigious ability from an early age. Already competent as a pianist and violinist, he composed from the age of five and performed before European royalty. Mozart went on to compose more than 600 works, many of which are acknowledged as pinnacles of symphonic, concertante, chamber, operatic, and choral music. However his Requiem in D minor, K626 was left incomplete at the time of his death and what we hear today are various completions of the work.

At Mozart’s death, only the Introitus of the Requiem was fully scored. All the other movements, from the Kyrie fugue to the end of the Hostias, were only sketched.The last three movements—Benedictus, Agnus Dei, and Communio— remained unwritten, and nearly all the orchestration was incomplete. For fear that she should have to return all or a portion of the fee, the Mozart’s widow prevailed upon Mozart’s pupil Joseph Eybler to score the middle movements and compose the final three. He touched up the orchestration in parts of Mozart’s manuscript but couldn’t bring himself to add his own work to that of Mozart’s. Constanze Mozart then turned to another student, Franz Xavier Süssmayr, to complete the work. Over time more and more scholar-composers have taking umbrage with Süssmayr’s work and producing their own “authoritative editions” however it is Süssmayr’s completion that is most often heard today and in our view remains the best.

There is a 1975 recording by the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, Academy of St. Martin in the Fields Chorus, conducted by Sir Neville Marriner in which the choral singing is particularly fine. For those who want a large orchestra and chorus we can wholeheartedly recommend the version by the BBC Symphony Orchestra with the John Alldis Choir and directed by Sir Colin Davis as part of a 2 CD set entitled Mozart: Great Choral Works on Philips.

But our top recommendation is a more recent slimmed-down version from John Butt and the Dunedin Consort in a near perfect performance that attempts to reconstruct the first performance of this endlessly intriguing work.

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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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