Under Brown Wraps

November 09, 2017

I call it the brown paper bag approach. Forget all of those catchy photographs, the slick visual presentations, the superlatives and the superstardom spin.

When it comes to selecting music to present on the air, none of that makes any difference. All CDs are equal. And they might as well be packaged in a plain brown paper bag. Simply said: the only thing that really matters is how they sound.

That’s the challenge whenever I’m faced with new recordings. It’s not that the art work or the accolades are not to be admired. But they should complement what you hear rather than determine what you choose to listen to.  I was reminded of that over the past couple of weeks, given a few milestone birthday celebrations and the arrival of some new recordings.

For years we received CDs from the Finnish Broadcasting Company with flimsy paper booklets in shades of pale blue, green or yellow that were a step above brown paper bags. Needless to say, they weren’t particularly inviting in their visual presentation. The information provided was barebones: the titles of works on the recording and the performers – generally orchestras and conductors. Over the years they added the pronunciations of the composers and conductors, as well as some basic biographical material. That was most welcome especially in pre-internet days, when there was little if any mention in music reference books of most of the composers and conductors featured on those discs.

Though the name Sibelius did appear from time to time, those CDs introduced a wide variety of lesser-known Finnish composers from the 1700s to the present. Having patiently auditioned the discs with both new and long-time listeners in mind, I discovered a number of pieces that I wanted to share on the air, including works by Armas Järnefeld, Väinö Haapilainen and Ilmari Hannikainen.

October 19th marked the 125th anniversary of Hannikainen’s birth. I played selections from a suite he arranged from the incidental music he wrote in 1932 for a play titled Harvest Dance. Performed by the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Petri Sakari, it was included on a disc with a plain yellow booklet from 1997. I believe it’s the only recording of the work that’s available.

On October 17th, we celebrated the 125th anniversary of the birth of English composer Herbert Howells (1892-1983).  Howells wrote 3 dances for violin and orchestra in 1915, the year after Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote his famous romance for violin and piano/orchestra known as The Lark Ascending. The dances were recorded by violinist Malcolm Stewart and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra 25 years ago (Hyperion 66610), which is when I first came upon them. The second of the dances might indeed be of interest to those who are fond of the better known work by Vaughan Williams.

I don’t remember when it was that I discovered the little tango by American composer Dominick Argento from his opera: The Dream of Valentino. It’s a charming work, reminiscent of Jacob Gade’s Jealousy. I played it most recently in honor of Argento’s 90th birthday on October 27th from a 1995 recording titled Dance Mix featuring the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra led by David Zinman (Argo 444454).

I do remember that I tried to ignore all the press materials when I auditioned recently the debut release of 22-year old George Li (Warner 190295 812984).  He’s a Chinese-American pianist from Boston who won the Silver Medal at the 2015 Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow and recorded his CD live at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg last year. I chose a Haydn piano sonata and the Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 to play for listeners on Classic Mornings. Those were obvious choices from among the works on the recording for the simple reason that I couldn’t stop listening once I began to audition them.

The same thing happened with the most recent release by Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov featuring music either written by or inspired by Chopin. It’s titled Chopin Evocations (Deutsche Grammophon 4797518). A few selections caught my attention including a piano piece in the tempo of a mazurka by Tchaikovsky (op. 72, no. 15), which is a tribute to Chopin. And I perked up while listening to Federico Mompou’s Variations on a Theme of Chopin and Chopin’s Impromptu No. 4 in C sharp minor, op. 66 - also known as the “Fantaisie-Impromtu.” In addition to works for solo piano, Trifonov performs the 2 piano concertos by Chopin with the Mahler Symphony Orchestra led by Mikhail Pletnev. Those were recorded in re-orchestrations by Pletnev.

And suddenly there are several new selections that you’ll hear from time to time on Classic Mornings.  I’m always excited when I’ve been led to pieces and performances that are more colorful than the wrapping in which they arrived. And I’m grateful that there’s a steady trickle of new recordings.  Some are provided by generous record companies and distributors. Some have been donated to the station. And others we’ve been able to purchase because of the ongoing financial support of our listeners. My thanks to all!


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