SAARIAHO: Notes on Light for Cello and Orchestra. Orion for Orchestra. Mirage for soprano, cello and orchestra.
Anssi Karttunen, cello; Karita Mattila, soprano; Orchestre de Paris/Christoph Eschenbach, cond.
ONDINE CD 1130 (F) TT: 63:06
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BERLIOZ: Symphonie fantastique, Op. 14. La Morte de Cléopatre.
Susan Graham, mezzo-soprano; Berlin Philharmonic Orch/Sir Simon Rattle, cond.
EMI CLASSICS 16224 (F) TT: 75:59
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D'INDY: Wallenstein, Op. 12. Choral varié, Op. 55. Saugefleurie, Op. 21.Lied, Op. 19.
Lawrence Power, viola; BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Thierry Fischer, cond.
HYPERION CDA 67690 (F) TT: 73:42
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WALTER: Symphony in D minor
NDR Symphony Orch/Leon Botstein, cond.
cpo 777 163 (F) TT: 59:30
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REZNICEK: Symphony No. 1 "Tragic." Four Songs of Prayer and Repentance.
Marina Prudenskaja, mezzo-soprano; Frankfurt State Orch/Frank Beermann, cond.
cpo 777 223 (F) TT: 68:40
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Ondine's disk of music by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho is fascinating. All of the performances were recorded during Festival 100% Finland in March 2008 in Paris's Salle Pleyel. Featured is the remarkable Notes on Light, a title taken from T. S. Eliot's The Wasteland. This actually is a cello concerto with five titled movements: Translucent, secret; On Fire, Awakening, Eclipse, and Heart of Light. Almost a half-hour in length, this work has uncommonly rich orchestration with many glissandi from both soloist and orchestra, and delicate, shimmering textures that create a magical effect. Only in On Fire do we hear massed orchestral sounds, and the final movement fades into nothingness. This music was composed for Anssi Karttunen who plays it magnificently; this is the first recording of the work. Another first recording is Mirage, the second work Saariaho wrote for soprano Karita Mattila. This is a 14-minute monologue for soprano, cello and orchestra describing the varied journeys of Maria Sabina, the Mexican sharman and healer. Surprisingly, it is sung in English. Saariaho's orchestral effects are vivid, and Mattila's spectacular voice easily manages this demanding music. Orion, the great hunter of Greek mythology, is depicted in Saariaho's largest orchestral work. In this we have great masses of detailed sound depicting the three movements: Memento mori, Winter Sky, and Hunter. These are definitive recordings of major contemporary music, and the recorded sound is uncommonly detailed. Recommended!

The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra has recorded Berlioz' Symphonie fantastique about a dozen times over the years with conductors including Barenboim, Jansons, Karajan, Kempe, and Markevitch. Now Sir Simon has his say on this favorite in performances recorded in May/June 2008 in Berllin's Jesus Christus Kirsche, and the result is nothing special: a rather lifeless reading that never catches fire, although beautifully played. The most distinctive part of this release is Susan Graham's portrayal of the dying Cleopatra in the 20-minute cantata. Audio is rich, but much of the important brass of the symphony's final two movements is too distant for impact.

French composer Vincent d'Indy (1851-1931) studied with César Franck. and was a distinguished teacher during his time. He thought highly of Wagner and although he was openly anti-Semitic, leading musicians of the time, including Saint-Saëns, Debussy and conductors Monteux and Munch favored him. Noted composers who studied with him included Satie, Roussel, Albéniz, Honegger and Milhaud, along with Joseph Canteloube who later wrote a biography of the composer. The only works of d'Indy that have enjoyed lasting popularity are the Symphony on a French Mountain Air for piano and orchestra, and his set of variations called Istar, both composed in 1886. His Symphony No. 2 was favored by Monteux, who recorded it in 1942 in San Francisco. All of the works on this new CD show the influence of Wagner, a generous (73:42) selection of works that probably will be new to most listeners. The three-movement Wallenstein, Op. 12 took eleven years to write, 1870-1881. This consists of three symphonic overtures after Schiller about the life of Albrecht von Wallenstein, general of the Imperial Hapsburg forces. Le Camp is the best-known of the three, depicting the victorious Wallenstein and actually at one point using an idea from Wagner, the "sword motif" from the Ring. Max et Théca is about the ill-fated love affair between the soldier Max and Wallenstein's daughter, Thekla, and the third depicts Wallenstein's death. Choral varié, composed in 1903, was written for saxophone or viola and orchestra; in this recording we hear the viola version. Saugefleurie dates from 1884 and concerns itself with the tragic love affair of a "humble, lonely yet charming little fairy" that falls in love with a mortal Prince, and Lied, written in1884, is scored for viola and orchestra. Thierry Fischer leads the BBC orchestra in splendid performances, and the violist is Lawrence Power. Hyperion's audio is excellent.

Ever searching for the neglected masterpiece, Leon Botstein has made some important and intriguing "discoveries" including operas of Chausson and Dukas, and A World Requiem by Foulds. Now he resurrects the first of the two symphonies composed by Bruno Walter, which had its premiere with the composer conducting in Strasbourg in February 1911. It was neglected until October 2004 when Botstein presented it with the American Symphony Orchestra; this recording with the NDR Orchestra was made in January 2007. At the turn of the century, Walter already had a close friendship with Gustav Mahler and conducted premieres of the latter's Symphony No. 9 and Das Lied von der Erde. Walter's first symphony is about an hour in length, and when he played it for Mahler, Mahler was not enthusiastic, saying "....unfortunately it means nothing to me, and my frank opinion put him in a state of mild despair." Leading critic of the time, Julius Korngold (father of Erich Wolfgang), blasted the symphony as well. And I can understand their discontent: this is a boring symphony that goes nowhere. Botstein and the orchestra do what can be done with the work, but this is for the shelves as an example of a superb conductor's failed attempt at composition.

Czech-born Emil von Reznicek (1860-1945) apparently had a great sense of humor, evident in his best known work, the sparkling overture to his 1894 opera Donna Diana. A friend of Richard Strauss, Reznicek several times parodied the latter, particularly in his symphonic poem Schlemihl which is a takeoff of Strauss's Ein Heldenleben. He even wrote an opera called Till Eulenspiegel, and other major works include five symphonies, a violin concrerto and four string quartets. cpo's recording of Symphonies 2 and 5 was reviewed on this site about five years ago (REVIEW). His Symphony No. 1 "Tragic" had its premiere in 1903 conducted by Felix Weingartner, and wasn't performed again until the early 1990's. Wildly meandering and verbose program notes by Eckhardt van den Hoogen advise us the symphony begins with a "symbol of a character bearing a tragic conflict within himself" followed by a "female character." Six pages of flowery prose preceded this— readers deserve program notes that make sense! The symphony is pleasant enough, surely of more interest than Bruno Walter's symphony mentioned above, which was composed about the same time. The brief Four Songs of Prayer and Repentance after Words of the Holy Scripture were premiered in1915 by baritone Werner Engel; on this recording they are sung by mezzo Marina Prudenskaja. CD notes refer to these songs as "four jewels." They hardly fit that description, althouth they are sung very well.These are first recordings of these works. All performances on this CD are first-rate, and engineering successfully captures the big orchestral sonoraties. This is another issue welcome in a library for reference.

R.E.B. (February 2009)