VOICES Notes and news on Classical releases

Jason Serinus

Color For Days


When it came to color and exoticism, composer Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) had few equals. At the height of his powers when, in his 43rd and 44th year, he composed his last major orchestral works, he wrote of them that they "close a period of my work, at the end of which my orchestration had attained a considerable degree of virtuosity and warm sonority." That's putting it mildly, as becomes clear upon listening to Robert Spano and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra's recording of Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade, Op. 35/Russian Easter Orchestra.

The composer's ability, in Scheherazade, to tell the tale of The Thousand and One Arabian Nights via sinuous melodies and huge sweeps of orchestral color produced one of the most seductive blockbusters of the romantic literature. Such an achievement was essential to tell the story of Sultana Scheherazade, one of the many wives of Sultan Shahriar, who saved herself by telling so many captivating tales over a period of 1,001 nights that the Sultan eventually abandoned his plan to execute her.

It may seem like a major leap to go from tales of an Arabian harem to the Russian Orthodox celebration of Easter, but Rimsky-Korsakov's conception for his Russian Easter Orchestra included not just liturgical chants and the gloomy mystery of Passion Saturday, but also what he called "the unbridled pagan-religious merrymaking of the morn of Easter Sunday." When performed back-to-back, they provided a great opportunity for Spano, the Atlanta forces, and Telarc's engineering team to go whole hog.

Jason Serinus

Glories from Vivaldi & Bach


Among the many authentic instrument recordings from Martin Pearlman and Boston Baroque, Bach: Magnificat/Vivaldi: Gloria stands out for the celebratory beauty of its music. Heard in these small forces interpretations, with a chorus of no more than 25, it’s hard to imagine that the music of both composers lay mostly unperformed for as long as it did.

The “Gloria” is normally heard as a single section within a larger mass, but the substantial length of Vivaldi’s Gloria in D Major suggests that it was written as a stand-alone piece. The opening “Gloria in Excelsis” is a joy. The soprano duet, “Laudamus Te” and soprano solo “Domine Deus” often excerpted for their lively beauty and graceful lyric lines. Soloists Tamara Matthews and Deanne Meek do them full justice. I’m a major fan of the short “Quoniam tu solus sanctus,” whose bumptious opening theme seems to sound for far longer than the movement’s 45 seconds. And who cares if Vivaldi store the closing fugue (other than the deceased composer), given what he did with it.

Bach’s Magnificat, also in D Major, is another gift to humankind. It’s opening choral “Magnificat,” later “Fecit potentiam,” and closing “Sicut era in principio” are unforgettable, and several of its movements, notably the soprano’s “Et exsultavit spiritus,” baritone’s “Quia fecit mihi magna,” and alto’s wonderful “Esurientes implevit bonis” are iconic in their beauty. It pairs perfectly with the Vivaldi, making for an ever uplifting, smile inducing program.

Jonathan Widran

On The Move


True to the title of her latest Telarc release, versatile pianist/composer Hiromi has been constantly on the Move since assembling a new trio (contra-bass guitarist Anthony Jackson and drummer Simon Phillips) and releasing their debut album Voice in 2011.

When she calls the subsequent touring with these two "the biggest fun I’ve ever had in my life musically," that’s a major statement; her ten year Telarc career includes seven previous recordings, three live DVDs and major performances and recordings with legends Chick Corea and Stanley Clarke. She began composing for Move, a 9-track set she calls "A Soundtrack for a Day," while on the road with the trio, based on her intuitive responses to the beauty of their playing and their unique musical characteristics.

Because many of the songs had been road tested, Hiromi and her trio were able to record quickly with Grammy-winning producer and engineer Michael Bishop once they hit the studio. The collection is driven by the theme of time, from the rumbling alarm clock vibe of the title track through the eloquent and reflective greeting of the "Brand New Day" and the busy old school funk of "Endeavor." Rolling easy before making dramatic dark chord pounding transitions, "11:49" is an 11-minute romp designed to mark the transition from one day to the next.

The centerpiece of Hiromi's "day" is the three part "Suite Escapism," broken into three distinct moods: a whimsical, vibrant "Reality," a dreamlike "Fantasy" and frenetic "In Between." All that, and Hiromi and her trio still have time to enjoy a festive "Margarita!" between all the other activities.

Jason Serinus

Rediscovering Kullervo


Sibelius: Kullervo, Op. 7 can shake your listening room to the rafters. Heard in Telarc’s big, powerful recording with Robert Spano conducting the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, the magnificent men of the superb Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus, and top-notch soloists Charlotte Hellekant and Nathan Gunn, the 71-minute, five-movement work shines an invaluable light on Sibelius’ efforts, at age 26, to discover his true voice.

Based on the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala, Kullervo was soon withdrawn from performance because Sibelius feared branding as a local composer dependent on folk sources. Nonetheless, thanks to the Kalevala Society, which bought the score from him in the 1930s when Sibelius was short of cash, Kullervo has survived. It first received its first full performance in the 20th century less than a year after the composer’s death in 1957, and was finally published in 1966.

The symphonic epic tells the story of Kullervo, an orphan blessed with both magical powers and a penchant for ugly vengeance. Having inadvertently made love with his missing sister, who in turn kills herself, he launches into battle. Eventually, discovering that everyone but his family dog has died, he falls on his sword and commits suicide.

Sibelius sets the legend to music, omitting only the text’s closing warning that a child who is not well nurtured, “rocked and led uprightly” will never know discretion, honor, or wisdom. What you will know after listening, however, is how much of Sibelius’ musical genius found early expression in his epic composition, Kullervo.