Kashif: The Queen Symphony (CD review)

Tolga Kashif, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. EMI 7243 5 57395 2.

I admit it: I have always liked the music of British rock band Queen. For instance, I still think their 1975 album A Night at the Opera (a gratifying reference to one of my favorite Marx brothers films) is brilliant. Nor have I any objection to people reorchestrating pop tunes and playing them via full-scale symphony orchestras. So back in 2002 when conductor and composer Tolga Kashif orchestrated an EMI disc of tunes by Queen and played by the Royal Philharmonic, I merely shrugged and thought, "Why not?" Then I listened to the album, in which Kashif arranged some of Queen's songs into what he called a symphony, and it all seemed more than a bit exaggerated to me. Still, what do I know: The disc garnered "Album of the Year" honors in some circles, attracted a host of devoted followers, and became a best-seller.

Kashif's symphonic creation, which is close to an hour long, contains bits and pieces of songwriter and lead singer Freddie Mercury's work for Queen divided into six movements. The trouble is, I found little continuity among the movements, little cohesion, just fragments of this and that held together through the brute force of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Kashif's fancy orchestration. Because I found much of the production a little tedious, about the only thing it made me want to do more than anything else was to listen to an actual Queen album and hear what the music originally sounded like.

You'll find a Queen song such as "Love of My Life" coming up best due to its inherent lyricism, and the whole symphony certainly starts out well, everything lushly orchestrated. But then you'll also find Kashif providing tempo markings within the movements like Allegro Scherzando and Moderato Cantabile, which seem overly pretentious to me. This self-reverential tone appears especially evident when Kashif, who not only arranged the music but conducts it as well, insists that this is a genuine symphony and not just a new arrangement of older music. I dunno; maybe Kashif meant the whole thing humorously, like some of Queen's own music. Despite Kashif's claim that it's a serious symphony, however, the music just sounds to my ears like an inflated collection of disparate pop harmonies, with little musical focus other than what Kashif's score attempts to segue into next.

Anyway, you'll hear snatches of "Bohemian Rhapsody," "We Will Rock You," "We Are the Champions," and "Who Wants to Live Forever" tenuously woven into a single movement with little rhyme or reason. I admit it's pleasant enough from time to time, especially if you're already a Queen fan, but as a whole it fails to hang together any more than a multitude of ordinary theme albums do.

Moreover, the sound doesn't help much, either. To my ears EMI recorded the orchestra too close up and in too many multi-miked segments, with a constricted frequency response, a slightly muted high end, a soft midrange, a weak deep bass, and a nonexistent depth of image. In other words, it sounds exactly like a lot of pop recordings, which, given that EMI made it at least partly in Abbey Road's famous Studio 1, means it bears little resemblance to the kind of classical recording it would seem striving to emulate. So, in short, it sounds like a good pop album, which essentially it is. There's nothing wrong with that as long as we're not pretending it's something more.

JJP

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


Mozart: Complete Violin Concertos (CD review)

Also, Sinfonia Concertante. Rachel Barton Pine, violin; Matthew Lipman, viola; Sir Neville Marriner, Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. Avie AV2317 (2-disc set).

What do you get when you combine all five of Mozart's violin concertos along with the Sinfonia Concertante in a singlet set? And then you have them performed by one of the world's leading violinists, Rachel Barton Pine? And you find her accompanied not only by the great Academy of St. Martin in the Fields but by its founding director, Sir Neville Marriner? And Avie does all of it up in good, natural sound? You get a darned fine recording all the way around, that's what you get.

Mozart wrote his violin concertos in Salzburg around 1775 or a little before when he still in his late teens. Audiences for the past two hundred-odd years have appreciated their appealing melodies and expressive style. Interestingly, Mozart never returned to the violin concerto as such for the rest of his life, probably because as a piano virtuoso he liked composing for that instrument, writing over twenty-seven piano concertos. (Although, to be fair, Mozart was also a violin prodigy, but later apparently preferring the piano.) In any case, one usually has to buy two or three albums to own all five violin concertos by a single performer, so already it's a good deal to find Ms. Barton Pine doing all of them in one set. Also interestingly, Ms. Barton Pine has recently been playing all five concertos in single concerts. Those must be some programs.

As welcome as Ms. Barton Pine is in this music, we must also welcome Sir Neville back conducting the group he co-founded in 1958. You would think that at nearly ninety years of age (at the time of this recording) he might be slowing down, but apparently not. His accompaniment is as alert as ever, and it goes without saying that the Academy play as smoothly and precisely as ever.

Now, as to the performances: Don't expect anything quite like the quick, fleet-footed readings of Anne-Sophie Mutter and the London Philharmonic (DG) or Lara St. John and The Knights (Ancalagon), to name a couple of my favorites in this repertoire. No, Barton Pine and company adopt tempos closer to Ms. Mutter's early recordings with Karajan (DG) and Muti (EMI), moderate tempos that nevertheless bring out all the beauty and expressiveness these concertos have to offer. As we might expect from Marriner and the Academy, especially, these are elegant, stylish performances, filled with delicate nuances and ravishing lines.

The powers that be at Avie Records arranged the concertos with Nos. 4, 1, and 3 on disc one and Nos. 5, 2, and the Concertante on disc two. Well, I don't suppose the order makes any difference; Mozart wrote all of them at about the same time. Except when it comes to trying to find something in the set; then you have to check the packaging to see where to find a specific concerto. Did Avie just want to start with a popular concerto by beginning with No. 4? Or was it a matter of what they fit on each disc? I dunno. But how hard would it have been to put the longest work, the Concertante, first, followed by Nos. 1 and 2 on disc one? They would easily have fit, as would Nos. 3-5 on disc two. A trivial criticism, in any event.

So, things begin with the Violin Concerto No. 4 in D, K218, certainly one of the most well-known and possibly most-beloved of the concertos. OK, one can understand why Avie started with No. 4. In Ms. Barton Pine's capable hands and with Marriner and company providing such expert support, the whole thing is a delight. Oh, and Mozart left no cadenzas for any of the five concertos, so Ms. Barton Pine has written her own. She says she feels more comfortable playing her own personal cadenzas, and certainly they seem to fit Mozart's style and moods.

Rachel Barton Pine
And so it goes. The Concerto No. 1 has a zippy poise about it, energetic yet never rushed, with a charming Adagio, the dialogue between soloist and orchestra always an attractive two-way affair. No. 3 Barton Pine says is her favorite, and it shows in her enthusiasm and loving attention. She claims it's Mozart's "friendliest" key, G major, and the first movement most resembles an aria. She performs in a most songlike manner, the second-movement Adagio soaring plaintively.

No. 5, which leads off the second disc, is the longest of the violin concertos and among the most creative. Barton Pine and her fellow players handle it in stride, highlighting its playful yet contrasting tones start to finish. The first movement alone plays like a miniature concerto in three parts: fast, slow, fast. The second and third movements, an Adagio and Minuet, are graceful and smiling, with Ms. Barton Pine again bringing these qualities to the fore. The final violin concerto in the set, No. 2, seems a little simple, almost old-fashioned, by comparison to the previous piece, yet the performers again bring out the best in it, with a pleasingly infectious cadence throughout.

The album concludes with the Sinfonia Concertante in E flat for violin and viola, K364, from 1779, and here violist Matthew Lippman appears with Barton Pine. Mozart's mother had died the year before he wrote it, and most critics agree that the music reflects this loss. It shows a greater seriousness and maturity than the violin concertos and more-ambitious orchestration. Ms. Barton Pine and her companions play it in a wholly appropriate fashion, emphasizing its solemn nature without making it sorrowful or overly sentimental. It's maybe the most-brilliant and impressive work on the program, and Barton Pine and company execute it with both passion and compassion.

Producer Andrew Keener and engineer Simon Eadon recorded the album at Air Lyndhurst Studios, London in August and September 2013. There's a sweet warmth around the sound, with a flattering hall resonance providing a realistic ambience. Yet the bloom is not so great that takes anything away from the recording's clarity, which remains good. The soloist appears well integrated into the ensemble, just out ahead of the orchestra and to the left. The orchestral detail is fine, as is the depth and dimensionality of the group; and Ms. Barton Pine's violin sounds wonderfully transparent, almost glowing in its excellence.

JJP

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


Jongen: Violin Concerto (CD review)

Also, Fantasia; Adagio symphonique. Lazzari: Rapsodie. Philippe Graffin, violin; Martyn Brabbins, Royal Flemish Philharmonic. Hyperion CDA68005.

This album is the eighteenth installment in the Hyperion Records "Romantic Violin Concerto" series and headlines the Violin Concerto in B minor by Belgian organist, composer, and music teacher Joseph Jongen (1873-1953). If you're not too familiar with Jongen or his violin concerto, you may understand why it took eighteen volumes in Hyperion's violin series to get to him.

Modern audiences probably know Jongen best for his organ works, his Symphonie Concertante for organ and orchestra among the most-popular things he did. On the other hand, his Violin Concerto in B minor, which he wrote in 1899, didn't see publication or a public performance until 1914, where after it fell into neglect. Its next performance wasn't until 1930, but it didn't attract any serious attention until 1938, nearly four decades after its composition. Then, people started taking notice of it, and critics of the time recognized that it might be pretty good after all. Is it possible that at the time of its first performance, audiences were already beginning to shy away from Romantic concertos and leaning more to the emerging Modernism? Was Jongen's timing just off? More in a moment. The main thing is that the piece is finally getting a little more recognition with this Hyperion recording from violinist Philippe Graffin, conductor Martyn Brabbins, and the Royal Flemish Philharmonic.

Incidentally, for those of you unfamiliar with the soloist or conductor, Mr. Graffin is a French violinist (b. 1964) with a reputation for championing forgotten or original settings of concertos by Faure, Chausson, Ravel, Coleridge-Taylor, and others. His speciality is Romantic French repertoire, playing on a Domenico Busano violin made in Venice in 1730. Maestro Brabbins is the Chief Conductor of the Nagoya Philharmonic and the Principal Guest Conductor of the Royal Flemish Philharmonic. Both men have been active in Hyperion's "Romantic Violin Concerto" series since the outset of the project in 1999.

Anyway, about the Jongen Violin Concerto and the present performance of it: The opening movement, the longest of the three at about eleven minutes, is somewhat severe in its straightlaced seriousness, and if one had to judge the entire concerto simply from this start, one could understand the reticence of early audiences to embrace it. It also suffers from a certain lack of direction and no really big tune to latch onto. Nevertheless, there is a pleasant lyricism that emerges from time to time that anticipates the more sweetly flowing second-movement Adagio. Meanwhile, Graffin and company appear to do their utmost to give the music its due, even if a good part of it is a tad too melodramatic for its own good.

It is, in fact, in the Adagio that Jongen scores his best points, although it still tends to wander aimlessly too often. Graffin's solo playing throughout seems effortless, and he brings a gentle persuasion to the second movement that I found charming.

Philippe Graffin
Jongen marks the finale Animé, and certainly Graffin and his supporting players handle it in an appropriately animated style. The music here is big and lush and rhythmic, although it also seems more disjointed than it does melodic or coherent, running as it does from one subject to another. Still, Brabbins and the orchestra seem able to hold it all together and perhaps make more of it than is actually there, while Graffin takes the solo passages and helps make them soar.

So, I asked earlier if audiences in 1914 hadn't given the concerto short shrift, and I'm still not sure. Maybe they were looking for something less overtly Romantic, yet they embraced Rachmaninov's music at the time, as Romantic as any. Maybe they just wanted something more individualistic and memorable.

Coupled with the concerto we find Jongen's Fantasia in E major and his Adagio symphonique in B major, along with Sylvio Lazzari's Rhapsodie in E minor. Of these three, I enjoyed the Fantasia, one of Jongen's earliest pieces, most of all for the soaring beauty of its line. Graffin manages it with an expressive purity that does justice to the music's songlike simplicity. Jongen's Adagio symphonique was a touch too sentimental for my taste without being really as touching as might have been. That's no reflection on Graffin's performance, by the way, which is as sympathetic as possible.

Finally, there's the Lazzari piece, the Rhapsodie, from 1922. Like Jongen's work, it harks back to a more old-fashioned manner of music making, with plush melodies and dramatic mood swings. One hears in it flashes of Chausson, Saint-Saens, and Gounod, even Rimsky-Korsakov and Wagner. Graffin and his fellow performers carry it out with a suitable dignity and a good deal of sensitive refinement.

Producers Rachel Smith and Simon Perry and recording engineer Ben Connellan made the album at the Muziekgebouw Frits Philips, Eindhoven, Netherlands in July 2013. As usual with Hyperion, we get a warm, natural, nicely detailed sound. It may be a little close for the smooth, warm tone we hear from the orchestra, which might suggest a bit more distance, yet it's a sound that radiates a pleasant acoustic bloom and enough clarity to satisfy most listeners. While I wouldn't call it exactly audiophile, it is rather lifelike, as one might hear an orchestra live from a midway point in the hall.

JJP

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

I've been listening to classical music most of my life, starting with the classical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first classical recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor. Today, I'm retired from teaching and using a pair of VMPS RM40s. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (moviemet.com, formerly DVDTOWN) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

Contact Information

Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to pucciojj@gmail.com.

Readers with impolite, discourteous, bitchy, whining, complaining, nasty, mean-spirited, unhelpful letters may send them to pucciojj@recycle.bin.