ARENSKY: Suite No. 1 in G minor, Op. 7. Suite No. 2, Op. 23 "Silouettes." Suite No. 3, Op. 22 "Variations in C major."
Moscow Symphony Orch/Dmitry Yablonsky, cond.
NAXOS 8.553768 (B) (DDD) TT: 76:23
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SMETANA: Ma Vlast
Vienna Philharmonic Orch/Nicholas Harnoncourt, cond.
RCA BMG 54331 (F) (2 CDs for price of one) (DDD) TT: 39:32 & 43:46
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HSIAO: 1947 Overture. Piano Concerto in C minor, Op. 53. Cello Concerto in C, Op. 52. Violin Concerto in D, Op. 50. Symphony, Op. 49 "Formosa." An Angel from Formosa.
Anatoly Sheludyakov, pianist; Kirill Rodin, cellist; Alexander Trostiansky, violinist; Moscow State Corus; Russian Federal Orch/Vakhtang Jordania, cond.
ANGELOK 9912/13 (2 CDS) (M) TT: 69:29 & 58:18
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Anton Arensky (1861-1906) was a major figure in the 19th century Russian musical scene as a teacher, composer and, to some extent, as a conductor. He studied with Rimsky-Korsakov, and his students included Scriabin, Rachmaninoff and Gliere. He's best known for his Variations on a Theme by Tchaikovsky, and the Waltz from his Suite for Two Pianos, Op. 15. Naxos' CD offers all three of his orchestral suites, identifying the Suite No. 1 as "Basso ostinato," although that is only one of the five movements of the suite, but one that was very popular in England at the time. Only this suite was written originally for orchestra, the others started as works for two pianos. The first two suites each have five varied movements, the third is actually a set of nine variations on a theme. None of the music is particularly memorable. There are occasional touches of Tchaikovsky, but not enough. These performances by the Moscow Symphony under Dmitry Yablonsky's direction do what can be done for this music, and the recorded sound is superb. Thanks to Naxos, for a minimal expense you can hear these neglected works by a minor Russian composer.

Angelok's twin-CD set features music of Taiwanese composer Tyzen Hsiao, who was born in 1938, moved to the United States in 1977 earning a Master Degree in Composition from California State University, returning to Taiwan in 1995. The 1947 Overture is a symbol of Taiwanese struggles and aspirations in memory of the infamous "228 Incident of February 1947" in which Nationalist China police ruthlessly killed Taiwanese citizens who were rebelling against Chinese leadership; it is said that between 18,000 and 28,000 had been killed in the month following "228" and thousands more had been jailed, beaten or tortured. The twenty-minute overture supposedly represents the all aspects of this ominous situation, with a piano as "a metaphor for the indomitable spirit of the Taiwanese, and a soprano and chorus singing the "228" memorial song "Love and Hope."

Three concertos were commissioned by the Taiwanese United Fund. The Piano Concerto, Op. 53, which had its premiere in Vancouver in 1994, is "inspired by traditional Taiwanese folk songs" which the composer "subtly blends with classical Western styles, especially those of Chopin and Rachmaninoff." Also on this first CD we have a symphony called "Formosa," which is Portuguese for "beautiful and good things." In three movements of about fifteen-minutes duration, it is a disconnected assemblage of sounds of little significance. The overture, piano concerto and symphony are vapid listening; compared with them, Arensky's orchestral suites are pure gold. Fortunately things change with the two other commissioned concertos, particularly the cello concerto. In both of these folk melodies, often plaintive in nature, are skillfully used. The brief (4:30) An Angel from Formosa is descriptive of a peaceful Taiwanese country scene. All performances are expert and the recordings, made 1999-2000 in Radio Palace Hall in Moscow, are sonically excellent It's unfortunate it isn't possible to buy just the second CD.

Nicholas Harnoncourt's new recording of Smetana's Ma Vlast has some lovely moments but looses steam as it progresses with the final two movements slack indeed. It's a pleasure to hear this music played by the Vienna Philharmonic, but they did it better with James Levine in 1986, although not as sumptuously recorded as in this new version made during live performances in the Musikverein in November 2001. Ma Vlast is far better served by historic recordings including Rafael Kubelik's 1952 Chicago Symphony, his later version for DG with the Boston Symphony, and particularly his 1990 live performance with the Czech Phiharmonic at the Prague Spring Festival. A dubious plus is that the two CDs necessary for Harnoncourt's leisurely account are sold for the price of one.

R.E.B. (December 2003)