With the heat and humidity of a middle Tennessee summer pressing on us, the thought of slipping out to a concert on a weekend evening quickly passes. Even the outdoor concerts at Sewanee require hacking one’s way through the crowd parked on the I-24 exit ramp to Starwood. To put it simply, this is the season to catch up on recorded music.
In the main, a lot of the stuff shoveled out by the major companies this summer is musical mulchchopped and shredded reminders of past growth. The greatest offenders in this recording-as-compost theory of merchandising are the constituent parts of Polygram classics. It’s impossible to underestimate the strength that the likes of Pavarotti and the late Herbert von Karajan have added to this corporate bottom line, but endless retreads of Pavarotti’s greatest hits and those ubiquitous “Mad about....” composites seem mostly to be enriching cut-out bins. Another problem here is that even when DG, London, and Philips (along with subsidiary labels Mercury, Oiseau Lyre, and Archiv) take the trouble to showcase new artists in well-marketed recordings, they’re content to have them rerecord the same works by the same composers over and over again. I have referred to this in the past as the “Four Seasons Syndrome,” but the continuing rerecording of standard repertoire is threatening even the most cherished classical standard with banality.
It is good to report, however, that some companies are bucking this trend. Although not an exhaustive list, the following are some labels whose recordings deserve an honorable mention for trying harder.
Sony/CBS/Columbiaor whatever it’s calling itself this yearis the company that virtually invented catalogue recycling. Its culpability in fostering the familiar began with its “Greatest Hits of...” series, which continues with such great-grandson of “Greatest Hits” titles as “PianoFrench Masters,” “Age of Elegance,” and “Cartoons.” Sony’s atonement for such catalogue fodder comes in the form of some impressive releases of Russian ensembles, principally under the “St. Petersburg Classics” marquee, and a growing number of fine recordings by Orchestra Filarmonica della Scala under the direction of Riccardo Muti. To be sure, both of these projects feature a fair number of the usual suspects, but don’t overlook such welcome recordings as the “Lege Artis” Songs of the Cherubim (Sony 64586) or two Sony recordings that feature works by the 19th-century Italian symphonist Giuseppe Martucci. Sony has recently added to a previous recording of Martucci orchestral works a disc that contains his piano concerto and some orchestral songs. The earlier orchestral works were a real find, but the piano concerto is also worth much more than a few listens. Perhaps we can soon expect performances of Martucci’s two symphonies as well as some of his larger chamber pieces.
Romantic American works, long the Rodney Dangerfields of the musical world, are finally getting some respect. Chandos has the Detroit Symphony and Neeme Järvi redoing some of the work uncovered by the old Heritage of American Music series, but the little Premier label is weighing in with some of the forgotten felicities of American chamber music from the pre-Nadia Boulanger era. As I write this paragraph, I’m listening to my personal favorite in the series: Leo SowerbyMusic for Violin and Piano (Premier 1049). Sowerby is remembered most for his works for organPeter Fyfe, one of Nashville’s best-known organists, was a Sowerby pupilbut he also composed a substantial amount of music for orchestra and a healthy number of chamber pieces. The two violin sonatas recorded here were not influenced by popular styles of their periods as much as the works of Gershwin, but Sowerby’s talents as arranger for the Paul Whiteman Orchestra are audible in the “Two American Pieces.” Both violinist Robert Murray and pianist Gail Quilman are far more than adequate to the task here. They both play with conviction and an eye to the phrase that indicates they have lived with these pieces.
I, for one, assumed that Dimitri Shostakovich had won the competition for most prolific string quartet composer in the 20th century, but Brazilian composer Heitor Villa Lobos tallied at least 17 quartets of his own. If the ones already committed to disc by Cuartetto Latinoamericano for the Dorian label are representative, these recordings deserve your patronage. I’ve been listening to the first two volumes in the set of late, and they have provided me pure enjoyment. If you’re familiar with the Villa Lobos style from some of his war-horses, you won’t be disappointed here. These quartets betray influences of Stravinsky and Bartok, but they have that feel of cross-pollination with popular forms that makes them instantly accessible. The recordings are uniformly well done, with much better sound than a competing set by the Danubius Quartet on Marco Polo, and new Dorian releases of some of the early Villa Lobos symphonies appear to indicate the kind of interest that begets recordings of complete works.
Finally, there is Naxosthis whole label is a wonder. You won’t get the best recordings of the classical standards here, but for the $6-$7 price per disc, the recordings are good enough. The great glory of this label is that, in spite of its second-tier repertoire, it has released enough interesting recordings to put a dent in a healthy acquisition budgeteven at bargain prices. If you’re a fan of classical-period works, you will seldom go wrong with some of the offbeat offerings from Naxos. The Krommer clarinet concerti (Naxos 8.553178), cello concertos by Carl Stamitz (Naxos 8.550865), and flute quintets by Danish composer Friedrich Kuhlau (Naxos 8.553303) have become especial favorites of mine. In addition, the discs of works by Spohr, Berwald, Walton, and Arnold are worth double the priceand you would pay double the price if these were released on the big-name labels.
When the weather turns cold, the new releases will flood the pre-Christmas market, but during these dog days, you don’t have to listen to dogs.
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AGGGHHHH that last picture!