The dark side of the moon

Looking over the list of new releases on the Naxos and Grand Piano labels this month turns up a number of familiar names alongside types of music not usually seen in tandem.

nino-rotaSergio Bosi‘s recording of works for solo clarinet (Naxos 8.573090) written by 20th-century Italian composers includes music by Nino Rota, who is better known for his music for stage and screen than small-scale chamber works. Rota’s film scores (he wrote around 150) include many collaborations with the director Franco Zeffirelli; also with Francis Ford Coppola for his trilogy The Godfather, Parts I and II. Rota’s contribution to Bosi’s disc is a world première recording of his Lo Spiritismo nella vecchia casa.

The Franco-Swiss pianist Alfred Cortot was one of the most distinguished soloists of his era who made some of the first alfred-cortotelectrical recordings produced by Victor Records in 1925. You can hear these pioneering takes of works by Chopin and Liszt, plus others, on Naxos Historical 8.111261. This month’s Grand Piano release, however, documents Cortot the arranger (Grand Piano GP641) with a programme that includes music by J. S. Bach (Toccata and Fugue in D minor), Fauré (Dolly Suite) and Franck‘s Violin Sonata. Pianists familiar with playing the accompaniment for the latter will be intrigued to hear how the three challenging staves get rolled into two.

leopold-godowskyAnother of the greatest virtuosos of his time was the Polish-American pianist Leopold Godowsky (1870-1938). While his technically challenging show-pieces are well-known to concert pianists, and his transcriptions are in the current repertoires of many players, this new disc of music for violin (Naxos 8.573058) will be a fresh discovery for many. Although virtually unknown today, the works were performed by some of the elite violinists of Godowsky’s time, including Jascha Heifetz; this particular recording closely follows Fritz Kreisler‘s fingering and bowing for the 12 Impressions.

Rossini‘s fame as an opera composer dominated the scene at the start of the nineteenth century; his 39 stage works ranged Gioachino-Rossinifrom Italian comedies to more epic works for the world of French grand opera. They also dominate the memory when trying to recall what else contributed to his overall output. He famously retired when he was only 37, indulging himself in his passion for food and cooking which has been handed down to today in menu appearances such as Tournedos Rossini. He also amused himself in the last decade of his life by writing the Péchés de vieillesse (Sins of Old Age) that can be heard on this month’s Volume 5 of his complete piano music (Naxos 8.573050). The 24 miniatures include allusions to Bach, Chopin, opera and the music-hall; one was even written overnight to help a friend out of a financial difficulty.

Arnold-SchoenbergAlthough he doesn’t figure among this month’s new releases, Arnold Schoenberg similarly wore a completely different hat before formulating his twelve-tone system of composition and alienating many who were not ready for his revolution in sound. Anyone unfamiliar with the works from his pre-dodecaphonic days will enjoy exploring this other side of the coin.

His Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night) was originally written for string sextet but is often played in a version for string orchestra, as on the cited disc (Naxos 8.554371). Dating from 1899, the music never quite uproots from the D minor tonality in which it starts, but the extreme, post-Wagnerian chromaticism probably upset its first audiences as much as its programmatic subject matter: a woman confesses to her new lover that she is carrying another man’s child; he both accepts and forgives the situation. The music hits a rare intensity of emotion.

The following year, the leopard began to change its spots when Schoenberg veered towards his new and controversial process of composition, but not before he had embarked on his mammoth, two-hour cantata Gurre-Lieder (Naxos 8.557518-19), a work he was to abandon for seven years before its completion date in 1913; during that intervening period, he wrote his first atonal compositions. Gurre-Lieder is scored for speaker, five solo singers, three 4-part male choruses, an 8-part mixed chorus and an orchestra that requires two dozen each of woodwind and brass, with a large percussion section plus strings to match. If you do not know the work, you should set aside an evening to be enlightened.Glass-harmonica

After that massive aural experience, you’ll probably need a delicate refresher, so try an unusual tot of Mozart in his Adagio for Glass Harmonica, K. 356 (Naxos 8.555295). If you’re interested in learning more about the history of this once very popular instrument, you’d better set another evening aside.