If you’re looking for new music to listen to this summer, I have suggestions.
Camille Saint-Saens’ Organ Symphony and other works, featuring the Kansas City Symphony conducted by Michael Stern with organist Jan Kraybill and violinist Noah Geller (Reference Recordings)
There are many recordings of Camille Saint-Saens’ Organ Symphony on the market, but Reference Recordings has just released a CD by the Kansas City Symphony that can take its place with the best of them.
The KC Symphony, with superb direction from Michael Stern, sounds absolutely world-class. The orchestra has the full, rich, romantic sound that is so essential for 19th-century French music. And there is visceral excitement, too. The musicians are on fire, and they blaze with self-confidence.
Some would say that Helzberg Hall’s dry acoustics are not ideal for organ music, which sounds best in resonant cathedrals and churches. But as with Kraybill’s recording of French organ music released last year, the Reference engineers make Helzberg’s Casavant organ sound resplendent, giving it an aural halo and making it sound as though it were recorded in Notre Dame.
Saint-Saens’ symphony is not really a showpiece for an organist’s technical skill. For that, listen to Kraybill’s solo organ CD. But the organ adds color and oomph to Saint-Saens’ orchestration, and Kraybill does what needs to be done. From the subtle glow of the third movement to the blast of triumph in the finale, the organ in this symphony is as good as it gets.
Two shorter works by Saint-Saens featuring the Symphony’s concertmaster, Noah Geller, open the disc. Geller’s rendition of the Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso and “La muse et le poète” are stunning. His old-school fiddle playing is as rich as melted caramel.
One gets the feeling that the Kansas City Symphony’s burgeoning discography will stand the test of time and that its CDs will take their place among the classics.
Reference has other projects with the KC Symphony in the pipeline, and based on their collaborative efforts so far, we await them with bated breath.
Music of Zhou Long and Chen Yi featuring the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Darrell Ang (Naxos)
Zhou Long and Chen Yi are professors of composition at the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s Conservatory of Music and Dance, and their works often display an intellectualism best appreciated by those with a music background. But a recent Naxos recording demonstrates they can write music that is not only intellectually satisfying but also spine-tingling.
The disc contains two compositions by Zhou, “The Rhyme of Taigu,” a work inspired by Japanese drumming, and “The Enlightened,” which pays tribute to Chinese philosophy. The major work on the CD, Symphony “Humen 1839,” was written by Zhou and Chen, who are also husband and wife.
“Humen 1839” commemorates the burning of 100,000 tons of British opium in Humen, China, an event that precipitated the First Opium War. This is thrilling, cinematic music that, although challenging at times, is always gripping. After listening to this CD, one could imagine Zhou and Chen tackling a movie score.
Maybe these two beloved Kansas City academics will go Hollywood some day.
“Flight of Angels,” music of Francisco Guerrero and Alonso Lobo featuring the Sixteen, conducted by Harry Christophers (The Sixteen Productions)
The Sixteen, led by Harry Christophers, is one of the world’s great choral ensembles. They do everything well, from the music of Tudor England to contemporary works by John Tavener.
One area in which the group excels is Spanish Renaissance music. The Sixteen has several CDs of Tomas Luis de Victoria under its belt, and now the choir presents music by two lesser-known Spanish masters of polyphony.
“Flight of Angels” features motets and hymns by Francisco Guerrero and Alonso Lobo, composers active during the 16th century. Their works are the musical equivalent of paintings by El Greco. There’s the same depth of emotion, the same sorrow, joy and outright ecstasy.
Light up some frankincense and listen to this CD late at night and you will be transported to another realm where perhaps you will feel the presence of angels.
String quartets by Bedrich Smetana featuring Pavel Haas Quartet (Supraphon)
Chamber music is arguably the least popular genre of classical music. That’s too bad, because the chamber repertoire contains some of classical music’s richest treasures.
There’s no better introduction to classical chamber music than the string quartets of Bedrich Smetana. Supraphon, the Czech national recording label, has just released a disc of Smetana’s two quartets that I suspect would turn a lot of people into chamber music fans.
The Pavel Haas Quartet performs with a richness that makes one forget that there are only four musicians. And the music by Smetana is full of folk rhythms and melodies that are completely irresistible. An occasional dark cloud scuds by, but this is largely sunny music. One could imagine listening to the quartet perform this music in a gazebo as you enjoy a sausage with sauerkraut washed down with a pilsner.
“From the Keyboard” featuring “The President’s Own” United States Marine Band (Altissimo)
Summer and brass bands just go together, and there is no brass band better than “The President’s Own” United States Marine Band.
On its latest disc, “From the Keyboard,” this illustrious ensemble performs transcriptions of keyboard classics. It opens with Johann Sebastian Bach’s famous Toccata and Fugue in D minor. The band captures the organ flavor of the original while providing some rumbling thunder of its own. Bach would have loved it.
There are also works by Sergei Rachmaninoff and Claude Debussy, but the centerpiece is a transcription of Modest Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.”
Maurice Ravel’s orchestral transcription of Mussorgsky’s piano miniatures is known for its brilliant color, but this rendition is just as brilliant and has an extra surge of juice. In the final movement, the Marines storm the Great Gate of Kiev with all horns blazing. It’s a Technicolor conclusion to a bravura performance.