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  Features
     
   

The Faculty Recommends

By Geoffrey Burleson

Probably the most formidable difference between the compact disc market of today and the ancient world of vinyl LPs is the unbelievable glut of the former. The price of producing a compact disc is but a small fraction of what it used to cost to create a long-playing record album. Thus, a much larger proportion of worthy releases on CD get "lost between the cracks." Although they’re well distributed, they receive little or no promotional backing. What backing they do receive is often minuscule compared with what is manifested by the ubiquitous, life-sized, cardboard cutouts of The Three Tenors, Cecilia Bartoli, or Kenny G. that one finds in the appropriate section of Tower Records. So, I thought that it might be useful to highlight a few lesser-known CD releases of recent years, one’s that have affected mew to the point that they seldom collect any dust on my shelf.

Beethoven: 33 Variations on a Waltz by Diabelli, Op. 120 (Audiofon CD 72001)
Leonard Shure, Piano

Some of the most powerful, transcendent piano music ever written is performed with passion and deep insight by Leonard Shure on this release. Diabelli was a prominent music publisher who composed this waltz in part as a promotional gimmick for his firm, Steiner. He delivered his little 32-bar composition to every reputable composer in Europe that he could think of, and asked each of them to compose a single variation on it for a compilation (Liszt and Schubert, among other, eventually responded). Beethoven, instead of writing a lone variation, wrote the most massive set of variations on a theme since Bach’s "Goldberg Variations," actually eclipsing the latter in size and scope. The "Diabelli" Variations is an odyssey through every conceivable mood that could possibly stem from the musical materials of this waltz, and many inconceivable one’s as well. References to the musical past (a double figure, reflecting Beethoven’s preoccupation with Bach; the 18th century minuet, now replaced by the 19th century waltz as the predominant dance form) are combined with visionary writing prescient of the musical future.

Clara Schumann: Soirées Musicales (Tudor 7007)
Clara Schumann: Piano Concerto, Piano Trio, 3 Romances (Tudor 788)
Veronica Jochum, piano (with the Bamberg Symphony; Joseph Silverstein, conductor and violin; and Colin Carr, cello)

In celebration of Holy Cross’ 25 anniversary as a coeducational institution, I thought it appropriate to offer some splendid works by one of the most dynamic, pioneering (and until quite recently) underrated women in musical history. Robert Schumann was certainly one of the greatest, most inventive, and most imaginative composers/critics of the 19th century. Plagued by mental illness, he died in an asylum at the age of 46. Ironically, it was largely due to Clara’s efforts that Robert’s music subsequently became a mainstay of the piano repertoire. As one of the greatest concert pianists of the 19th century, Clara performed Robert’s music throughout Europe during numerous tours. She also introduced several of Beethoven’s sonatas to Berlin, and is believed to have codified the tradition of pianists playing solo programs entirely by memory. Upon Robert’s death , her work as a composer unfortunately ceased. She continued to perform, however, for the next several decades. Veronica Jochum made the first recording of the piano concerto in 1988. There are now several in the catalog. The first movement features effective contrasts between dramatic opening gestures and tender, lyrical thematic material. The entirety of the second movement is, in fact, a Romanze for cello (sensitively rendered by Colin Carr) and pianio, with ethereal textures projecting an air of melancholy and nocturnal solitude. This seagues into an elegant yet resolute final movement. There are passages of harmonic daring throughout that are even more auspicious in the masterful Piano Trio on the same release. The all-solo piano Soirées Musicales features some of Clara’s charming (and relatively naïve) earlier works, as well as her mature Scherzi, and her sublime Variations on a Theme of Robert Schumann. Clara Schumann could not have a more effective champion than Veronica Jochum, who performs with virtuosic aplomb, a wide palette of color and nuance which is always in service of the melodic lines, and absolute idiomatic authenticity throughout these recordings. The Bamberg Symphony and Jospeph Silverstein are furthermore exemplary collaborators in all respects.

Paul Robeson: Songs for Free Men (Pearl - GEMM CD 9264)

Another neglected figure, but there the comparison with Clara Schumann ends. Robeson is undoubtedly best known for creating the role of Joe in Showboat, and particularly for his signature tune "Ol’ Man River." A pioneering and multi-talented African American artist, Robeson’s initial fame was due to his athletic prowess (as a football star at Rutgers), then as a stage and film actor. He was a sensation in Eugene O’Neill’s All God’s Chillun Got Wings and The Emperor Jones, as well as Othello, the last in the longest run of any Broadway production of Shakespeare – 296 performances. His most enduring legacy may nonetheless be the potent and masterful artistry of his voice, and the effect it had on those who listened. Alexander Woolcott may have summarized it most cogently when he described it as "the best musical instrument wrought by nature in our time." Robeson’s range as an actor was matched by his versatility as a singer. With his accompanist Lawrence Brown, he revived interest in the spiritual with recitals throughout Europe and the U.S. He also sang opera; Mussorgsky’s Boris Gudounov was a central role. Robeson’s embrace of the worker’s movement in the 1940s and ’50s allowed him to popularize repertoire associated with anti-Fascist and pro-Union causes, as well as Chinese and Russian music, but it also proved to be his undoing. A victim of McCarthyism, his passport was confiscated. By the time it was restored, he was in terminally declining health. Songs for Free Men is a fantastic compilation featuring representative samplings from all genres of Robeson’s repertoire. Chinese folksongs and Russian art songs intermingle with Earl Robinson’s "Ballad for Americans"; spirituals co-exist with Mrc Blitzstein’s "The Purest Kind of Guy." The ordering of the program is nonetheless quite sensible, consisting of several blocks of songs related by genre. The recordings themselves were made between 1940-45, and the digital transfer was astutely manipulated; the magnificence of Robeson’s voice is vitally evident throughout.

Herbie Nichols Trio (Blue Note 1519)
Herbie Nichols Trio, Vol. 2 (Blue Note 1608)
(with Al McKibbon and Teddy Kotick, bass; and Max Roach, drums)
Herbie Nichols: Love, Gloom, Cash, Love (Bethlehem 20-30112)
(with George Duvivier, bass; and Danny Richmond, drums)

One of the most underrated figures in jazz, Nichols was a dynamic, iconoclastic performer of the post-bop era whose career, unfortunately, never quite took off. These three trio releases, recorded between 1955 and 1957, represent his entire output as a leader. In the, one can hear a startlingly original approach to composition and improvisation. The cross-rhythms, pungent harmonies, and quirky embellishments evoke the spirit of Thelonious Monk, but the complex structures and unpredictable approaches to building solos re Nichols’ own. Nichols died in impoverished obscurity of leukemia in 1963, at the age of 44.

 

Geoffrey Burleson is an Assistant Professor of Music at Holy Cross. Burleson received his Bachelor of Music degree from the Peabody conservatory in Baltimore, and his Master of Music degree from the New England Conservatory in Boston. A pianist who has made solo appearances throughout the U.S. and Europe, Burleson performs a wide range of repertoire, featuring contemporary music and jazz, as well as standard romantic, classical, and baroque works. Burleson won a Special Commendations Medal in the 1985 International Piano Recording Competition. He has made solo and chamber music recordings for Vienna Modern Masters, Music & Arts, CRI, and Neuma.

 

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