Mix of the month

Naxos releases a significant number of new recordings each month that represent a spectrum of styles, historical periods and instrumental and vocal combinations. We’re presenting a quick sampler of the releases for this month, April 2019, which we’ll present in the order of their date of composition so you can get a feel for the general development of the character of classical music across the near five centuries that the pieces span.

We start in the year 1513 and music for harpsichord by, well, we’re not sure. But we do know that the publisher was the innovative music printer Pierre Attaingnant (1494-1552), who produced the first editions of keyboard music ever to appear in France. Only one copy of each of these seven tiny but crucially important volumes has survived, in which anonymous composers made arrangements of some of the most beautiful chansons, motets and dances from the reign of François I. Here’s Branle simple. A branle was a popular French dance of the time.


Branle simple (8.572999)


We jump two centuries to music by George Frideric Handel and the influence of a certain John Beard (c. 1716–1791). He was a young tenor who came to Handel’s attention when still a teenager. He inspired the great composer to give new focus to the tenor voice within his English oratorios. In return, Beard was Handel’s ideal in his demands for “articulate utterance of the words and a just expression of the melody“ – a collaboration that climaxed in Handel’s creation of the first truly great tenor part as the hero in Samson. From that oratorio, here’s the aria Total eclipse!


Total eclipse! (8.573914)


Our next clip is a bit of a hybrid in that Mozart wrote his Piano Concerto No. 8 in 1776, but we’ll hear it in an arrangement for piano solo and string quintet that was made by Ignaz Lachner in 1879. Lachner so venerated Mozart that he arranged twelve of his 27 piano concertos for performance by small ensembles. Having known Schubert in Vienna and met Beethoven, he was well equipped for these arrangements ensuring that the string quintet of soloists, with the double bass largely doubling the cello role, sounds thoroughly idiomatic. Here’s the opening of the first movement.


Piano Concerto No. 8 (8.574012)


Written in 1779, just three years after Mozart’s original version of that concerto, we now have a keyboard sonata by Antonio Soler, who was appointed in 1757 as maestro di capilla and organist at the Escorial, the royal palace established by Philip II of Spain. This position enabled him to mix with fellow court musicians, among whom was Domenico Scarlatti, whose influence was to remain profound. Soler wrote some 150 sonatas, his greatest compositional memorial, most for the young prince, Don Gabriel. Soler’s Keyboard Sonata No. 92 reveals his awareness of the contemporary influence of Haydn. We can listen to the last movement.


Keyboard Sonata No. 92 (8.574021)


From just two years later, but hopping from Spain to Italy, we have music by Luigi Boccherini, who enjoyed enormous popularity during his lifetime thanks to music that emphasised rich melody, instrumental vibrancy and disarming beauty. He chose the intimacy of a chamber music setting for his Stabat Mater, written in 1781 for a solo soprano and string quintet with the instrumental textures weaving the fabric of the text’s meaning. Here’s the second section of the work, Cujus animam gementem:

Cujus animam gementem   Through her heart, His sorrow sharing,
Contristatam et dolentem   all His bitter anguish bearing,
Pertransivit gladius.       now at length the sword has passed.


Cujus animam gementem (8.573958)


Gaetano Donizetti is renowned as a leading composer of the Italian romantic bel canto opera style during the first half of the 19th century. But in his earlier years and as a student of Simon Mayr his dramatic genius came to the fore in his settings of psalm texts for Vespers. They are characterised by beautifully shaped operatic melodies and colourful orchestration on a grand scale, creating moments of real rhetorical force in works that have lain undiscovered in manuscript form for two centuries. Listen to Domine ad adjuvandum, written in 1819.


Domine ad adjuvandum (8.573910)


Our next piece was written just five years later, in 1824, by Felix Mendelssohn. Although the composer needs no introduction, maybe the rarely performed piano music he wrote as a teenager does. In addition to his prodigious youthful genius as a composer, Mendelssohn was an exceptionally able pianist. Those two qualities come together in his dashing Prestissimo in F minor, written (and no doubt performed) when Mendelssohn was only fifteen years old.


Prestissimo in F minor (8.573946)


Getting further into the Romantic period we have music by Hector Berlioz. Of all his Shakespeare-inspired works, Roméo et Juliette (completed in 1839) is unquestionably his masterpiece. It’s also cast in an innovative new form, a kind of ‘super-symphony’ that incorporates elements of symphony, opera and oratorio. Berlioz composed no singing roles for the central characters of the title, but allowed others to comment or narrate, giving latitude to incarnate the lovers in a musical language of extraordinary delicacy and passion. Mab la messagère fluette et légère, our extract for tenor and chorus opens with the following translation of the French text:

Mab! that tiny
gossamer-light messenger,
whose carriage is an empty hazelnut
fashioned by a squirrel;
its harness was spun
by a spider’s fingers.


Mab la messagère fluette et légère (8.573449-50)


Still in France, we have music by Daniel-Francois-Esprit Auber, who, by the time he composed La Sirène in 1844, occupied a central place in French musical life. The mysterious siren of the title is part of a plot that abounds in fantastic comedy, love, betrayal, farce and festivity in the tradition of Italian popular theatre. The German poet Heinrich Heine wrote that “La Sirène was received with resounding bravos … The author and the composer know how to amuse us agreeably, and even to enchant us, or to dazzle us by the luminous facets of their spirit.” From Act II, here’s Prends garde, Montagnarde! sung by Zerlina, the leading soprano role.


Prends garde, Montagnarde! (8.660436)


We step into the 20th century now with music by the Russian composer-pianist Sergei Rachmaninov. His sets of Préludes, written over a period of 18 years, are a mirror and a record of his compositional development. With so rich a variety of character, colour, texture and mood, no two préludes are fully alike; they stand in the great tradition of works by Bach and Chopin written in all 24 major and minor keys. His Prélude in F minor Op. 32, No. 6 was written in 1910.


Prélude in F minor (8.574025)


We move on a couple of years to music by Joseph Marx, the Austrian composer, teacher and critic who lived from 1882 to 1964. Although he was one of the leading figures of Austrian musical culture during his lifetime, his music was out of step with 20th-century Modernism and most of his music disappeared from concert programmes after his death. As a contribution to its resuscitation, here’s the world premiere recording of his 1912 orchestral song Selige Nacht (Blessed Night).


Selige Nacht (8.573833)


Now to music for string quartet by the English composer Herbert Howells. I’ve chosen a movement from his String Quartet No. 3, a work that had an extended and eventful journey to fruition. Subtitled ‘In Gloucestershire’ the work was begun in 1916 but the first manuscript was left on a train and Howells subsequently revised it several times, reaching its final version in the late 1930s. The revision of unpublished scores was a constant process for Howells: it was said that he could not copy a single bar of his own music without changing some element. Here’s the second movement which is marked ‘Fairly quick, but always rhythmical’.


String Quartet No. 3 (8.573913)


We reach the second half of the 20th century with music by the Hungarian composer and educator Leó Weiner. It’s only in recent years that his compositions, with their synthesis of German Romantic and Hungarian elements, have been brought to wider appreciation. We’ll play a short section from his 1952 symphonic poem Toldi that’s based on a masterpiece of Hungarian literature; Weiner considered it one of his most significant compositions. Toldi was a nobleman and legendary hero in Hungarian folklore. We join the musical story-line at the section marked ‘Miklós Toldi fights two wolves’.


Toldi (8.573847)


Our final three excerpts require a bit of globe-trotting. First we visit Catalonia and wind band music by Xavier Montsalvatge, one of the most important Catalan composers of the 20th century who completed around 170 works: symphonies, chamber music, pieces for solo instruments, piano works, operas, folk-dance coblas, ballets, music for bands, choirs, films, and songs. His Música per a un diumenge (Music for a Sunday) was first performed in 1984. The first movement, Fanfarria (Fanfare), is an energetic and rhythmic fanfare with touches of humour and a section played only by percussion instruments.


Fanfarria (8.573915)


We fly across to the United States and into the 21st century for our penultimate piece by Victoria Bond, whose melodic and dramatic flair is a hallmark of her numerous works. She wrote Frescoes and Ash in 2009. It’s a suite of seven descriptive and dramatic images of the tragic city of Pompeii, scored for clarinet, string quartet, double bass, piano and percussion. The sixth movement, Alexander Mosaic, is a battle scene, with men and horses clashing violently.


Alexander Mosaic (8.559864)


And for our final piece of the month we wing it to Australia and a piece for solo guitar performed by Timothy Kain, the doyen of Australian classical guitar. The composer is Mark Isaacs (b. 1958) who explains:

“My late father was a very fine jazz guitarist [who] worked professionally playing jazz alongside his ‘day gig’ as a scientist, and was always at the instrument in our home. Song for My Father was written in 2016 both as a gift for Timothy Kain (it is dedicated to him) and also, of course, as an explicit tribute to my late father and his beautifully poetic jazz ballad style.”


Song for My Father (8.573961)


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