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Music: CD Reviews

By Frank Behrens
ART TIMES Online June 2011


SYMPHONIC CELTIC ALBUM   I almost feel sorry for CD producers who have to find new ways to package old material. Take the case of “The Symphonic Celtic Album” on the Silva Screen label. Basically, this disc is a compilation of film music that is based on Celtic melodies. That is a plus from the start, given the haunting beauty of so many of them. The 14 selections here are played by The City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by James Fitzpatrick.
            The films involved are “Miller’s Crossing,” “The Fellowship of the Ring,” “Barry Lyndon,” “The Shawshank Redemption,” “Braveheart,” “Titanic,” “The Last of the Mohicans,” “Highlander,” “The Quiet Man,” “Rob Roy,” “Far and Away,” “Gladiator” (how Celtic music fits ancient Rome has me stumped), and “Riverdance.”
            All in all, I really enjoyed this Silva Screen offering. But who in the world decided that the label would have the title in black and the rest of the information (get this now) in white print on a yellow background? Did the person get paid for that choice?


SARASATE   "Sarasate plays at the St. James's Hall this afternoon," says Sherlock Holmes, after hearing about the strange events concerning the Red-headed League from a client. And the music of Sarasate plays on a newly released CD on the Naxos label with the title “Sarasate: Music for Violin and Orchestra-3, Fantasies on The Magic Flute and Faust.”
            Pablo Sarasate (1844-1908) was a great attraction in the concert halls where he emulated Paganini with a virtuoso and very physical playing of his own music and that of others. One of his favorite formats was that of the concert fantasy, in which a set of popular melodies would be played and then improvised upon, not unlike the theme-and-variation development but in a much more freely imaginative style. This disc holds a fantasy on Mozart’s “Die Zauberflote” and his second fantasy on Gounod’s “Faust.”
            The other works are his “Navarra (for two violins and orchestra),” “Muineriras,” “Barcarolle venitienne” (arranged for violin and orchestra), and “Introduction and Caprice-Jota.” It is all stunningly played by the young Chinese violinist Tianwa Yang, accompanied by the Orquestra Sinfonica de Navarra, conducted by Ernest Martinez Izquierdo. And yes, Yang does play both violin parts in the “Navarra.”
            After my first hearing, I had to play it through again that very day to determine if I had found another permanent CD for my collection. I had.
            An error in the program notes has “Fantasies on Carmen and Romeo et Juliet” rather than “Magic Flute” and “Faust.” The former two can be found on Volume 2 of this Naxos series.

ENGLISH COUTRY DANCES   I am very grateful to smaller CD labels, who can afford to issue rare music that is not only of great historical interest but also a source of great listening pleasure. Such is a label named The Gift of Music, distributed here by Naxos of America. An example of their offerings is titled “English Country Dances” and holds 24 tracks of very delightful dancing tunes from England’s past.
            To be sure, there is enough courtly music included to cast doubt on the title. Still, this courtly music provides a sort of sonic textbook of the various dances enjoyed by the English nobility: galliard, almaine, pavan, and music for the masque. What the lower classes were dancing can be represented by such dance titles as “Gathering peascods,” “Millisons Jegge,” “Jenny pluck pears,” and “Drive the cold winter away.”
            The short program notes point out that the “branle” was of French origin and the direct ancestor of what we call “English country dance.” Of the branle, there are six examples.
            The music is played by The Broadside Band, directed by Jeremy Barlow, and recorded under the auspices of the Dolmetch Historical Dance Society. I must comment that the designers of the program notes should give the timings of the tracks for educational purposes.

MUSIC FOR A ROYAL WEDDING   Apparently some Big Event was brewing in the Mother Country and it has prompted an interesting CD on the Silva Screen label. I recall all those CDs with titles like “Music for a Wedding,” “Music for Your Wedding,” “The Ultimate Wedding Music CD,” and like that! This new CD is called “Music for a Royal Wedding” (surprise!), but the concept is better than one would think. It is a collection of 14 pieces of music, many of which were actually played at royal weddings in the past! “I vow to thee my country” was played at both Diana’s wedding and funeral and therefore stands as a sorrowful exception to the rest of the selections.
            Some pieces are from great composers of the past: Wagner, Mendelssohn, Widor, Delibes, Pachelbel. Some are by recent or contemporary composers: Arthur Benjamin, Elgar, Lloyd Webber, William Walton. As an innovation, those in charge of some royal event decided that film music would not be inappropriate, and so there are included themes from “Braveheart,” “Romeo + Juliet,” and my favorite, the “Henry V” of 1945.
            The program ends with “God save the Queen,” of course.
            Various orchestras and ensembles are heard on this CD, and they add even more variety. While the concept might be obvious, if not corny, the result is quite listenable. I would not, however, recommend much of it for nuptials among the middle and lower classes, the Wagner and Mendelssohn wedding marches excepted.
            One more word of protest against art departments which have no consideration for the public. The program notes are in white and off-white print against a textured blue and black background and hardly legible thereby. Why have things come to this in the CD and DVD trade?


Vintage Recordings

LOST TRANSCRIPTS 1   As I have been writing for years, Guild Light Music is in the process of releasing a seemingly endless series of CDs under the main title of “The Golden Age of Light Music.” They are now up to the 74th entry and it is a most unusual one. As a departure from the past compilations of commercial mono and stereo recordings of the late 40s to the middle 50s, this one takes a new direction.
            “The Lost Transcriptions, Volume 1” consists of recordings that were never meant to be sold to the public. As the excellent program notes tell us, musical selections were transcribed onto 7-inch and 12-inch 78 rpm discs as well as 16-inch discs that played at 33 1/3 rpm. They were sent to the troops all over the world to be played in barracks or over PA systems for the whole camp to hear.
            (It is said that the Germans close enough to hear would wait for Bing Crosby, because he sounded like a German baritone. They affectionately called him Der Bingle!)
            The sound is not bad, given their dates (from 1943 to 1955); and these selections are a good mix of the familiar and unfamiliar. Songs from then-current films include “The way you look tonight,” “Strike up the band,” and even “Ding dong, the witch is dead.” Among those less known today are “Ragging the scales,” “Primavera,” and “Dance of the frogs.” Mind you, these were all chosen to cheer up the troops, and any bouncy little tune was apt to do so.
            Among the conductors that have shown up on a majority of earlier Guild Light Music releases are Percy Faith, David Rose, Carmen Dragon, and Phil Spitalny. Mixed in with these are the RAF Concert Orchestra, The Orchestra of the H.M. Royal Marines (Portsmouth Division), and such seemingly ad hoc groups as The Orchestra in Khaki and the Army Salon Orchestra.
            As the notes inform us, all of these discs were to be destroyed after hostilities, but many servicemen took one or more home as souvenirs. It is from these surviving copies that Guild has gathered its material for this historically and musically interesting collection.


HIT OF THE WEEK   Archeophone Records is dedicated to restoring onto CDs the popular recordings of the past. Having reviewed nearly two dozen of their discs, I am pleased to report that the latest one is equally fascinating.
            Some years ago, Archeophone unearthed a special kind of recording that was popular during the 1930s. Called Complete Hit of the Week Recordings, the discs in this series were made of cardboard and subjected to a process known as Durium. They were floppy but they flattened out on the turntable and played with surprising clarity. They sold for 15 cents each and were unbreakable to boot.
            Volume 1 draws upon songs released in 1930, Volume 2 looks at the rest of 1930 and the first part of 1931, and Volume 3 tackles the rest of 1931. Among the songs with instant name-recognition are “Back in your own back yard,” “St. James Infirmary,” “Anchors aweigh,” “You brought a new kind of love,” “If I could be with you one hour tonight,” “When I take my sugar to tea,” “When the moon comes over the mountain,” “St. Louis blues,” “I found a million dollar baby,” and “Love letters in the sand.”  There are even ads for Chevrolet, Enna Jettick Shoes, Westinghouse, and Leonard Refrigerators!
            Most of the players are quite forgotten now (except by those hearing these CDs today). A few of them are College Humor Trio, Don Woorhees’ Orchestra, Maxwell House Orchestra, Freddie Rich’s Radio Orchestra, Phil Spitalny’s Orchestra, Red Book Magazine Orchestra, and others too many to even list in an abridged way here. But be sure that Eddie Cantor and Rudy Vallee will show up as very familiar voices on the vocals.
            And now Volume 4 completes the short series with 59 selections of songs (and commercials) from 1932. Familiar titles here are “When it’s sleepy time down south,” “Now’s the time to fall in love,” “All of me,” “Let’s have another cup of coffee,” “Between the devil and the deep blue sea,” and “After the ball.” That last one, about 30 years old then, seemed appropriate for 1932.
            Not only are these songs undoubted historical documents, but they are also a source to students of the American Popular Song. They represent the feelings of the Little Man about the Depression, of course; also the vocal styles of the singers and the orchestrations of the time can teach a lesson to those “stars” who grumble and slur lyrics today.
            Possibly the most interesting item shows up on Disc 2, track 28. Innocently titled “What kind of cough is serious?” by Pertussin, it carried a warning concerning its contents. Different kinds of coughs are illustrated and commented upon, and one should not be eating while listening!
            Talk about time travel! I cannot recommend too highly this set, the three that went before it, and just about every offering in the Archeophone catalogue.
            The booklets are packed with pictures and background information, as are all program notes, which is characteristic of this wonderful company.
            In fact, just about every Archeophone release has equally fascinating material. My favorite is the Year Book series in which the top releases of a given year are generously presented. Then there are the CD sets dedicated to a single vocalist, such as Bert Williams, Nora Bayes (with spouse Jack Norton), and Sophie Tucker. Several are devoted to vocal and music groups like the Six Brown Brothers and the Heidelberg Quintet. Some concentrate on spoken vintage recordings. But it would be best to scan their catalogue on their website at
            Note: I just did bop into that website and noticed that the 4 volumes of “Hit of the Week” are available as a set for a special price. Should you have trouble making a choice, you can e-mail me at for advice.



PARSIFAL   To some, Wagner’s 270-minute “Parsifal” is (to quote Don Rickles in another context) “as exciting as watching the Walton family shell peas on the kitchen table.” To others, it is a monumental statement of faith. And to many, it is a call for the Teutonic superman and faith in a master race.
            Whatever “Parsifal” is, it is not an opera. It was intended to be played nowhere else except at Wagner’s specially built Bayreuth Festspielhaus, and was described by its creator as “ein Buhnenweihfestspield" (A Festival Play for the Consecration of the Stage).
            I just viewed my second “Parsifal” on a C major DVD, which holds a 1998 performance given at Bayreuth, conducted by Giuseppe Sinopoli. Directed and designed by Wolfgang Wagner, it has a single abstract setting of six crystalline pillars that flank an otherwise bare round playing area. It is not until Act III that we get a good look at these pillars, since the first two acts are dimly lighted, I suppose to save electricity. The costumes are equally drab, except for the Flower Maidens, and add to the weightiness of the proceedings.
            What can one do in directing a stage work in which any movement at all is a big event? The only moments that approach dramatic excitement, as opposed to musical moments, are the description by the evil knight Klingsor (Ekkehard Wlaschiha) of Parsifal’s fight with the knights (offstage, of course) and the utter despair of Amfortas (Falk Struckmann), who calls for death rather than continuing to live in agony.
            I see it this way. Wagner wanted to tell a tale of redemption through sacrifice and kept it all very serious. With very few exceptions, the score is mono-tonous (to many, just plain boring), weighed down by its solemnity. Only Kundry (Linda Watson) is something of a live wire, until Act III, when she finds religion. There is not much Poul Elming can do with the title character, who starts off as something of a humorless Siegfried. Gurnemanz (Hans Sotin) is there to give background information, so there is not much chance for characterization.
            Sinopoli, if anything, stresses the ritual aspects of the score. And it is not his fault that Wagner gave nothing interesting to any of the vocal lines, concerned as he was to invent a new kind of orchestration. I would prefer an older video with more realistic settings, such as the one from 1981with Siegfried Jerusalem in the tile role. It is also performed in the same theatre and directed by the same person; but I remember it being a touch more dramatic. And its running time is about 40 minutes less than this recent one.
            The picture is in 16:9 ratio and there are subtitles.

MEFISTOFELE   Arrigo Boito (1842-1918) is much respected for his superb libretti to Verdi’s “Otello” and “Falstaff.” Conversely, his only completed opera, “Mefistofele,” was a fiasco at its opening and was moderately successful in its revised version.  Yet even today, many opera “critics” have little good to say about its loose dramatic structure and unique harmonies.
My collection of opera CDs already includes 7 versions of this work, the best of which is the 1958 recording with Cesare Siepi in the title role. An eighth has just arrived for my report. It is a 2-CD set from Naxos and contains a 2008 performance from Teatro Massimo in Palermo, with Stefano Ranzani conducting the orchestra, chorus, children’s chorus, and soloists.
First of all, this is a “live” recording, which means slightly uneven miking of the soloists (but very little in this case) and a sort of blurry sound to the orchestra and choruses. The soloists have that distant sound that non-studio recordings have; but the general feeling of “being there” makes up for the audio.
The Faust of Giuseppe Filianoti is full voiced, and Berlioz’ scenario saves him the trouble of effecting an old-man’s voice at the start, since there is no restoration of youth. There is, however, Faust at an extreme old age at the end, but I have never heard a tenor try to portray that vocally! Dimitra Theodossiou handles both the young Margherita and the mythical Elena quite well.
            I looked forward to the Mefistofele of Ferruccio Furlanetto and noticed that an important point is raised in his approach to his “Ave Signor” in the Prologue. While too many basso profundos take all sorts of liberties with the notes throughout this work, Siepi was praised for creating his character by singing what Boito wrote. Furlanetto adds emphasis to several words by nearly speaking rather than singing them. This is fine in this particular case—but how far is a singer to be allowed to stray from the written notes? (We have seen what has been done to our National Anthem at sporting events!)
            At one point, though, Furlanetto twists one word into a laugh—and it works. He is, after all, the Champion of Denial.
            Do I recommend this recording? Yes, but only for the sake of Furlanetto’s interpretation. The last page of program notes, by the way, shows the Classical Sabbath stage setting, a cartoon approach right out of “La Belle Helene.” Apparently even the stage director cannot find a respectful approach to this unusual opera!


METROPOLITAN OPERA BROADCASTS   All through my Junior High, High, and College years, I never had the chance to hear the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts, since I earned some much needed dollars on Saturdays. Later, I tried to tape some broadcasts (reel-to-reel), but invariably, the tape would end in the middle of a scene; and my lust for completeness would not allow those missing moments as I switched sides.
            Then, members of the Met Guild could purchase some of the transcriptions on LPs for a very considerable amount, which left me out in the cold yet again. But now Sony Classics is releasing them on CDs about six at a time. And I wish to report on two of the recent offerings.
            From January 28, 1961 comes Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro” with one of the best Figaro’s of the time, Cesare Siepi, and three American artists—soprano Roberta Peters (Suzanna), contralto Regina Resnik (Marcellina), and mezzo Mildred Miller (Cherubino). The other major roles are taken by Ezio Flagello (Bartolo), Kim Borg (Count), and Lucine Amara (Countess). These names should strike chords of memory in many readers, as should that of conductor Erich Leinsdorf.
            The sound, is of course, what sound was, far less brilliant than it was on stage. But on recordings like this, one concentrates on the soloists to recall what opera was like a half-century ago.
            The “Die Walkure” of February 24, 1968, conducted by Berislav Klobucar, has better sound (although one yearns for the missing high treble in the Magic Fire music at the very end). The cast is practically a “dream cast” for this work: Jon Vickers (Siegmund), Leonie Rysanek (Sieglinde), Karl Ridderbusch (Hundig), Thomas Stewart (Wotan), Christa Ludwig (Fricka)—and the soprano considered to be the greatest Brunnhilde of them all, Birgit Nilsson.
            Act I moves along with dramatic tension, with the only two “arias” in all of the Ring Cycle. But even for a person who understands German or has an English translation open, that long dialogues between Wotan and Fricka in Act I and the even longer one between Wotan and Brunnhilde in Act III do seem to go on forever. Still, there is also the “Ride of the Walkuries” and Magic Fire music to bring the listener around.
            To see past and more recent releases, visit



MARINO FALIERO   Think Donizetti-comic and you think of “Don Pasquale” and “The Elixir of Love.” Think Donizetti-serious and you think of “Lucia.” Once people might have thought of “Marino Faliero,” which was quite popular and then faded from the general memory. Now that Naxos has released a double-disc DVD set of this work, many might find it worthwhile.
            The production was given in 2009 at the Teatro Donizetti in Bergamo, Italy, conducted by Bruno Cinquegrani.
            Like Verdi’s “Simon Boccanegra,” the main character is an historical Doge of Venice, who in 1355 attempted to overthrow the powerful Councils and declare himself King of Venice. It didn’t work, but Donizetti thought the story was worth his 50th opera. Now viewers might decide on their own if the composer’s judgment was correct.           
            The libretto by Giovanni Emanuele Bidera is poorly written, with the love affair between Marino’s wife Elena (Rachele Stanisci) and his nephew Fernando (Ivan Nagri) being almost incidental to the major plot. Marino himself is an anomaly, neither villain nor hero. In this production, he is played by Giorgio Surian with very little character at all. His eyes seem to be tightly shut (I thought for a moment that he might be blind) and he shows restrained generalized emotion about his conspiracy, marital problems, and his nemesis Steno (Luca Dall’Amico), who seems to hate everybody and Fernando in particular.
            In fact, the only character with whom I felt any sympathy was Israele Bertucci (Luca Grassi), the Captain of the Venetian Arsenal. He, in contrast to all the rest, is an honest man who fights for the good of Venice and not for his own.
            Except for a lovely off-stage gondolier’s song, Donizetti offers nothing new. Everything is formulistic, very good and very unmemorable. The direction is traditional and unimaginative. Yet I enjoyed it thoroughly because of the novelty of seeing a Donizetti opera seria hitherto unknown to me.

            SERSE   Handel’s comic opera “Serse” (Xerxes) is notable on several counts. It is his last opera. In it, Handel gave up the old-fashioned A-B-A aria, which went on forever. Also, yes, this is the opera that gives us the famous Largo, so dear to beginning piano students. Now an elaborate production can be found on a reissue of a EuroArts DVD that was given at the Semperoper, Dresden in 2000 with Christophe Rousset conducting.
            Basically the plot concerns the following typical tangle in which If A loves B, then it is a given that B loves C—and so on until some letter loves A. In this case, Romilda (Isabel Bayrakdarian) is in love with and is loved by Arsamene (Ann Hallenberg, in a male role), while her other suitors include Serse (Paula Rasmussen, another male role) and Atalanta (Sandrine Piau, playing the role as a sexpot). Amastre (Patricia Bardon) considers herself engaged to Serse and disguises herself as a soldier to see what she can do. All during which, Serse has his heart set on Romilda.
            Note: This is definitely NOT the Xerxes of “300”!
            This being a comic work, the opening number has Serse singing a love song to his favorite tree! This Largo, however, is so beautiful that one feels Handel undermines the comedy.
The costumes are updated to a sort of Napoleonic period mixed with a little ancient Persian, so all is pleasing to the eye. What lacks is true comedy as the director makes his cast do silly things without really trying to humanize any role. Atalanta, for example, does a reverse striptease during one of her arias, but to what purpose is never made clear. And I do wish that Serse was given some characteristics other than looking imperious.
            However, the music is beautiful if not quite memorable after a single hearing—as is the case with most of Handel’s operas. The reason can be that many arias from one opera were easily borrowed for insertion in another, since they expressed the same general emotions with no reference to plot. Since so many of the roles are sung by females, it is a relief when one of the two male roles can be heard, even if their music is not up to that of the female characters.
            The running time is 160 minutes, the picture is in full screen ratio.



NORMA   It is good to have a rarely seen opera on DVD. The production of Bellini’s “Norma” on the ArtHaus Musik label comes from a 2001 performance at the Teatro Regio of Parma with Fabio Biondi conducting his Europa Galante Orchestra and Verdi Festival Chorus.
Note: This very same video originally appeared on the TDK label several years ago.
            While June Anderson is quite good in the title role, the production as a whole is rather pedestrian. Granted it is difficult to get life into some Bel Canto operas in which the singing is the essence of the whole, while plot and characterization take second place; but here we have the old style in which the chorus is glued to the spot for long stretches as the soloists vocalize toward the audience.
            Ms. Anderson is not helped in her dramatic scenes with her Adalgisa (Daniela Barcelona), who barely reacts to what is going on in any but a generalized way. She gets equally little support from the tenor Shin Young Hoon as Pollione, who looks quite uncomfortable on stage and just a little disappointed in not getting more applause during the final curtain call. His voice is good but not exceptional.
            Bellini tried very hard to make his characters believable, but he lived in an age when the singers ruled the roast and could demand extra arias and stage business that had nothing to do with the plots.
            I would not put this set in my top choices for videos of this work, but it is an honest production—no modern dress or other gimmicks—and much of the music is its own reward in “Norma.”
            Each of the two acts has its own disc, the picture ratio is 4:3 (full screen), the running time is 163 minutes, and the subtitles are in six languages (two more than the older TDK set). There is no bonus material. I must compliment the producers of the DVD for the special care taken with the subtitles, which not only show every repeat but even split the words during ensembles to indicate who is singing what. Very thoughtful and a good example for other companies to follow.



SHAKESPEARE INSPIRED   I love Shakespeare as well as I do music. Indeed, Shakespeare well read is music of the finest kind. So I have added to my collection all sorts of CDs that link the Bard with music. There are recordings of vocal renditions from the plays of Shakespeare (either in its earliest known form or arranged by composers from Arthur Sullivan to Castelnuovo-Tedesco), operas based directly on the plays (by Berlioz, Gounod, Britten, Barber, Hoiby, and others), and even a cabaret setting.
            As for the operas, most of the foreign composers were content to use libretti that were adaptations of the plays; while more recent composers try to set the original dialogue to music. That approach seldom works. So I really prefer renditions of the original songs set in various ways.
            My most recent addition is “Shakespeare Inspired” on a 2P (Two Pianists) CD. Featuring mezzo-soprano Michelle Breedt and pianist Nina Schumann, the disc holds 28 selections, most of which are from the plays. The other selections were included when Breedt was invited to sing at a festival that would include representative music of European countries. She was assigned England and chose Shakespeare as a focal point.  
            The opening number, “Shakespeare’s Kingdom,” could not be a better choice, with its lyrics by Alfred Noyes (yes, “The Highwayman”) and music by Edward Elgar. Other pieces that are based on English works by such poets as Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti can be argued to be in Shakespearean moods—but I would be hard pressed to defend their inclusion in this collection, given its title.
            Some of the more familiar composers represented here are Roger Quilter, Hubert Parry, Benjamin Britten, and Frederick Delius. It is good to hear samples of their vocal settings that may not appear elsewhere.
            Breedt has a pleasant enough voice (I always prefer mezzos to sopranos), but I found her enunciation hard to understand without following the lyrics that appear in the program notes. Nevertheless, this is an interesting and worthwhile album. But how I wish (here I go again) that the art departments would stop printing the notes in white over a black background. At the font size, they are hard enough to read in black on white!

VOLKS LIEDER 1, 2   In 2008, a concert and opera singer Cornelius Hauptmann began work on a project that would bring traditional German folk music to children for two purposes: to acquaint them with the works and to give them the experience of singing with others. To this end an archive began to be built up on-line, on CDs and in songbooks.
            Dozens of professional singers and vocal groups agreed to record for this project for free, and the Carus label has done a masterful job in producing the recordings segment of the project. I have already reported on Volume 1 of “Wiegen Lieder” (Cradle Songs) and am happy to state that the first two volumes of “Volks Lieder” (Folk Songs) are quite satisfactory.
            Between the two, they hold 62 songs that will prove very familiar to those brought up in a German culture. Others might recognize songs like “O, du lieber Augustin” that have passed into American popular music and several that have appeared over and over in other recordings by the Von Trapp singers and other such groups. (I grew up with German university songs sung by Erich Kunz and the male chorus of the Vienna State Opera on the old Vanguard LPs and later on CDs.)
            The only problem is that a few singers miss the lightness of these and approach them like Lieder pieces. But some lyrics call for such an approach, as does Gretchen’s song of the King of Thule. Therefore, a variety of song and a variety of vocal styles make this albums even more attractive.
            The elaborate program notes include information about the artists and also give both German texts and English translations. These Carus sets are being distributed over here by Naxos of America.


ALFRED BRENDEL ON MUSIC   After master pianist Alfred Brendel decided to quit the concert stage, he skipped over to the lecture stage and became a popular speaker. Three of his talks have been captured on a set of 2 C-major DVDs titled “Alfred Brendel on Music,” and the results have both negative and positive aspects.
            Chief among the former is that Brendel is not a very exciting speaker. His notes rest on a music stand as he rests on a chair and simply reads them word for word, with little attempt at varying his tone. Indeed, it is very difficult to catch the points at which he changes his subject, other than by catching a slight emphasis on the first words of the new section.
            When he turns to the piano to illustrate a particular point, he will often open his mouth in mock surprise to let us know he has just reached that point, and the result is almost comic.
            The facts he wishes to communicate, however, are fascinating; that is, if one has enough prior musical vocabulary and knowledge to understand the details.
            The first talk is titled “Does Classical Music Have to be Entirely Serious?” Here, he starts with the obvious (such as the triple joke that opens the second movement of Haydn’s “Surprise” symphony), but then goes into very technical ways in which composers have thwarted an audience’s expectations. Why these examples are “not serious” is passed by entirely.
            “Musical Characters” begins with somebody’s assertion that music cannot have “character” and continues to refute that remark by concentrating on the “character” of several Beethoven piano sonatas. Nowhere along the way does Brendel actually define “character,” so I find it hard to follow what he is trying to prove. Yes, perhaps the fault is in me; but I do prefer to have abstract nouns defined before being discussed.
            “Light and Shade of Interpretation” covers the knotty problem of how performers interpret the bare-bones notes and tempo markings given by the composer. Here, orchestral examples are mixed with keyboard ones. It is not easy to follow, but at least all terms are made clear.
            The total running time of the 2 discs is 225 minutes, the picture is in widescreen format, and there are much-needed subtitles.
SCARLATTI   I often complain that documentaries about notables do not show enough imagination. Of course, then comes a film-documentary that is too imaginative and difficult for one to follow main lines of thought. Such a one is the 2006 film by Francesco Leprino, “Un gioco ardito” (A daring game), which professes to be “12 thematic variations on Domenico Scarlatti.”
            The 93-minute film is now available on a Concerto DVD for all to judge.
            Other than the fact that Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757) got himself more promotions than did his father Alessandro Scarlatti (1660-1725) so that he became his sire’s boss, there is little interesting that emerges in this film about his life. So the concentration is on his music, aspects of which are narrated in a voice-over and by talking heads, most of whom speak in Italian (with an English voice heard—and not too clearly—over them). There is also a marionette that represents a contemporary of the composer. It just looks silly looks silly.
            Having tried as I could to follow the “12 thematic variations” promised in the film’s subtitle, I soon became weary of doing so and simply sat back to enjoy the music. Those who teach or play his music might have more luck.

AMERICAN SONGS   A teacher in the Continuing Education program at Keene State College once took a poll and asked his class to help compile a list of folk songs that they used to sing or at least hear in the past. He then showed this list to his younger students and found that not one song was known to any of them at all. Let me, then, prescribe a possible remedy for this problem.
 Out of Riverside, California comes a label called WEM Records. It seems that a California couple has issued a series of albums that tell the history of this country through its songs and a little narration to put each song into context. The artists are Keith and Rusty McNeil (and many friends), who accompany themselves with over 30 instruments, from guitar to harmonica.
            The titles in this series are “Colonial & Revolution Songs,” “Moving West Songs,” “Civil War Songs,” “Western Railroad Songs,” “Working & Union Songs,” “Cowboy Songs,” “California Songs, Vol. 1: 19th Century,” and “California Songs, Vol. 2: 20th Century.” Each set holds two or three CDs and there is a grand total of about 350 songs (if I counted correctly). Each song is introduced clearly and concisely so that its history and purpose are perfectly understood. Indeed all of these songs were originally written to express an urgent need, not just to create a commercially sellable product.
            Take for example the Civil War set. There are several discs on other labels that more or less contain the same songs: “Tenting tonight,” “When Johnny comes marching home,” “Lorena,” and “The battle hymn of the Republic.” But how many listeners, even history teachers, have heard “Treasury rats” (about the introduction of paper currency), the Southern version of “The battle cry of freedom,” and “No more auction block for me”?
            The McNeils have certainly done their homework and come up with items found on no other recordings. For example, how many songs of the War of 1812 can you name? And even if you can name one other than “The star spangled banner,” could you recite the words to, or even name of, the drinking song whose music was used as a setting for what became our national anthem? (See the Colonial set for both answers.)
            There is no doubt that these sets hold great educational potential and that every school in this country should own the entire collection. Music specialists might have a quibble here and there. While one can never tell how any of these songs were originally sung, any presenter must steer a tricky course between sounding too slick and too rough-and-ready. Personally, I like the McNeil voices. They do not produce that overkill effect we get when classical singers take on these popular songs (“popular” meaning  “of, by, and for the people”), nor do they put on that utterly amateurish croaking that so many “authentic” folk singers used back in the 1950s when the distinction between “folk” and “folklike” music had become utterly confused. The voices here are folksy in the best sense.
            The use of instruments—and the use of unaccompanied singing—is well done also. The group singing makes a good impression, mainly because of the verve the singers invest in each number.  Each set includes a booklet with some information about each song, and four of these albums have companion songbooks that give all the words and the music, and provide even more background details.
            This is certainly one of these recordings that is both wonderful to hear and a source of great educational value at the same time.
            Recently the team, with many supporting singers, has hit gold again in their California home with their 3-CD set titled “American Religious Songs with historical narration.” Here we have 137 examples, divided into 1492-1800, 1800-1860, 1860-1890, and after 1890. They are very careful to include non-Christian selections, including even a beautiful “Muslim call to prayer” and “The ghost dance song” of a short-lived Indian religion that tried to live in peace with the white man and to keep away from liquor.
            Not every song is necessarily a hymn of praise. “The Quaker’s courtship” makes fun of that sect, while several songs have secular lyrics set to familiar religious tunes. Among the latter are “Hallelujah, I’m a bum” (a variant of “Revive us again”), “The whisky shops must go” and at least one other that borrows the melody of “The battle hymn of the Republic.”
            Among the most beautiful of the lot is “It’s a gift to be simple,” which exemplifies in every way the essence of Shaker life. “Chester,” sung during the American Revolution, is an example of adapting a Biblical passage to fit political needs. There are many sledgehammer selections that make no attempt at subtlety, one being Arthur Sullivan’s “Onward, Christian soldiers,” familiar more through Salvation Army renditions than from church services (although it is now part of the Catholic hymnal).
            The program opens with “Oh, what a beautiful city” and ends with “Amazing grace.” Between these two, the variety is dazzling. And I must point out that the soloists’ voices are just right for this sort of music, with only one song that proves too lyrical for the soloist. The choral work is quite well done too.
            There is no point in my piling up examples. This is simply a set not to be missed, and every church group (at least) should want a copy to get some insight into what they are singing and the story behind each selection.
             I must report that Rusty McNeil passed away after this album was completed. I dedicate these reviews, if I may, to her memory.
            More information can be gleaned from their website at

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