Those readers who follow regularly will know that I’m a big fan of surround sound, not just for theatrical blockbuster movies, but for music, too. When surround first came out it was often used to exaggerate direction by placing instrumental choirs and soloists in the rear channels when the music didn’t call for it. But there are a number of compositions that do require instrumentalists in locations other than the front. These include the Berlioz Requiem, with its four brass choirs placed in the corners of the church or Leonard Bernstein’s Mass. Surround is indispensable to these compositions if they are to be heard correctly.
Now here comes Naxos with a Blu-ray collection of contemporary wind band pieces that all use surround to encompass an audience and heighten its listening experience. Steven Bryant’s Concerto for Wind Ensemble has three concertino groups surrounding the audience; Joel Puckett’s Shadow of Serius – Concerto for Flute with Winds and Percussion, places very effective echo flutes all around the listening area; and John Mackey’s Kingfishers Catch Fire adds brilliant trumpet fanfares in the rear to the finale. The playing of the University of Texas Wind Ensemble under the direction of Jerry Junkin is all first rate and not only is the recording surround, it is also HD, recorded and delivered at 24 bits/96kHZ. It’s not always an easy listen (I welcomed the familiar jazz patterns in the 3rd movement of the Bryant composition) but always an exhilarating one.
It’s not that music by Sibelius doesn’t get recorded. There are dozens of complete cycle recordings of the symphonies, about as many of the violin concerto, and a huge number of Finlandia and the other significant tone poems. But there aren’t many recordings of the lesser known works, and virtually none of the almost unknown ones. A series on Naxos is endeavoring to correct this slight and is doing it with definitive performances from conductor Leif Segerstam and the Turku Philharmonic. There’s a pattern to these releases – the main composition is the complete incidental music to a play filled out with four or five unknown vignettes. The latest features the complete incidental music for Maeterlinck’s Pelleas et Melisande, rounded out with Musik zu einer scene, Valse lyrique, Valse chavalersque, and Morceau romantique.
Segerstam and the magnificent Turku musicians play this music as it it was their prime assignment in life. The grave overture to Pelleas sets the stage with every note given importance. This is bold, grand, passionate music making usually reserved for something like the second symphony. The music for Pellas et Melisande is highly regarded but as played by Segerstam, it emerges as a major composition. The small pieces fare well and are given the same care and attention as the main offering. The recorded sound is robust, rich, full, and very exciting. Don’t stop with this release. There are three others that are equally worthy, and you can find them here.
I started this blog just two weeks before Halloween and have spent most of the time reviewing Halloween films. I wanted to write about the holiday’s music, but soon the Halloween will be a memory. Count on it next year. But in the mean time I can share this one tidbit with you. Perhaps the most popular classical piece of music for the holiday is Modeste Mussorgsky’s A Night on Bald (or Bare) Mountain. The music is famous outside normal circles for its use in Walt Disney’s Fantasia and as the theme song of radio’s Escape.
Mussorgsky, by all reports, was a genius but also a raging alcoholic who died young, leaving many of his manuscripts in disarray. Rimsky-Korsakov rearranged A Night on Bald Mountain, virtually recomposing it and smoothing out its harmonies. This is the version usually heard. But Mussorgsky’s wilder and woollier original has been recorded. You can get both versions on the same disc, in dynamic performances from Theodore Kuchar and the National Symphony of the Ukraine on a bargain priced Naxos disc, with a sterling performance of Pictures at an Exhibition (Ravel orchestration) and some shorter pieces thrown in. If you’re really lucky, you can find the discontinued SACD surround sound version. Its rarity has made it costly, but I it’s worth the price.