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Music

CD salutes Mariss Jansons' skill but suffers from lax production

| Sunday, Oct. 27, 2002

Music lovers going to Heinz Hall these days hear pleas for support for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in its financial crisis, always stressing the extraordinary quality of the orchestra. Three new CD releases document artistry that should never be taken for granted, even in times of prosperity. One is the symphony's first self-generated recording since the 1996 season; two others feature principal players.

Mariss Jansons' repertoire as music director has emphasized mainstream, mainly German masterpieces, but unfortunately, none of it has been released on CD. All Pittsburgh Symphony subscription performances are digitally recorded for radio broadcast on WQED-FM and across the nation thanks to an endowment from the Heinz Foundation. Those tapes provide the source for the new recording on the Curtain Call label.

Jansons' first recording here was a superb performance of Dmitri Shostakovich's Symphony No. 8 on the EMI label that was based on concert performances. The new Curtain Call recording also features Russian music: four works by Rodion Shchedrin, who was the symphony's Composer of the Year last season.

Jansons' Shchedrin CD includes the world premiere of "Lolita-Serenade," a colorful and dramatically well-varied score. It is freely based on the composer's 1994 opera "Lolita," aiming to "evoke the atmosphere and emotions suggested by" Vladimir Nabokov's sensational yet also thoughtful novel.

The other lengthy work is based on the 1972 ballet "Anna Karenina," written for the composer's wife, the prima ballerina Maya Plisetkaya. Its six sections mainly explore the inner world of a woman whose affair ruins her life. The introspective music is complemented by dramatic sections, including a clearly programmatic depiction of her suicide beneath the wheels of a train. The story is based on the celebrated novel by Leo Tolstoy, which includes one of the great opening lines of literature: "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

Two short pieces provide welcome spice. "Two Tangos," also a world premiere, was culled from piano pieces by Isaac Albeniz and is elegant and charming. "Naughty Limericks," written in 1963 and also called Concerto for Orchestra No. 1, is a wildly sarcastic piece reflecting the "chastushka" folk songs that sing what could not said about Soviet rulers.

The production of the CD is unfortunately sloppy, not even indicating track numbers for the various selections. Application of separate tracks is also haphazard. The six "Lolita-Serenade" fragments are given one track, while the six parts of the "Anna Karenina: Romantic Music" are separately banded.

Gretchen Van Hoesen, harpist

The Pittsburgh Symphony's principal harpist, Gretchen Van Hoesen, plays three appealing 20th-century works with orchestra on her new CD on the excellent Boston Records label. The label's attention to detail extends to a mention in the liner notes of the instrument Van Hoesen plays.

Van Hoesen, of whom Andre Previn comments "I don't know of a better harp player anywhere in the world," performs Reinhold Gliere's Harp Concerto, a romantic work despite its 1938 date of composition. The finesse of phrasing, conceptual elegance and technical control make the strongest possible case for the music.

Joseph Jongen's 1944 Concerto for Harp and Orchestra might also be considered anachronistic, as the Belgian's composer recalls French impressionism to the point of using fragments from Maurice Ravel's wonderful "Introduction and Allegro."

Van Hoesen was excited on the Pittsburgh Symphony's 1999 European tour to meet Spanish composer Manuel Moreno-Buendia to discuss his "Suite Concertante," which she then recorded within the year for this disc. The music is inspired by even earlier antecedents than the other two composers, in this case Medieval Spain.

Rossen Milanov provides admirable stylistic versatility in leading the New Symphony Orchestra of Sofia, Bulgaria, at the June 2000 recording sessions. The Carnegie Mellon alumnus has since become assistant conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra.

George Vosburgh, trumpeter

The vagaries of the record business make notable the reissue of "Four Trumpet Concerti" by George Vosburgh. Originally set down for JVC Classics, it has been out of print since the line closed less than a year after the recording sessions five years ago. It reappears on the Four Winds label that also records Pittsburgh Symphony Brass.

Vosburgh is a high-powered trumpeter, but his concerto recordings are characterized by lyricism and elegance as much as virtuosity. Not that the disc isn't technically stunning. He takes the last movement of Johann Nepomuk Hummel's concerti as quickly as the legendary recording by the Boston Symphony's Armando Ghitalla, which is now on a Crystal Records CD.

In concerti by baroque composer George Philipp Telemann and by Leopold Mozart - father of music's greatest genius, Wolfgang Amadeus - Vosburgh spins longs lines with seemingly endless breath and faultless taste.

Franz Joseph Haydn's Trumpet Concerto features poised rhythmic energy and a lovely slow movement, qualities that also distinguish his performande of the no-less-classical Hummel composition.

Gerard Schwartz, who was principal trumpet of the New York Philharmonic during the tenure of Pierre Boulez 30 years ago, leads his Seattle Symphony with the insights of a musician who himself made notable recordings of these works.

Coming up

Five additional CDs due out soon will feature individual and ensembles of Pittsburgh Symphony musicians: principal oboe Cynthia DeAlmeida, principal viola Randolph Kelly, concertmaster Andres Cardenes (in the Diaz Trio), Pittsburgh Symphony Brass (with the Bach Choir) and the Pittsburgh Chamber Music Project playing music of Ezra Laderman.

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