Though I've been loathe to post anything that would take a reader of this web log directly to any commercial sites, I'm going to do so today to call attention to two and worthwhile recent music releases. Naxos.com is one of the largest and most active publishers of budget CDs and DVDs, with an astounding catalogue of Euro-American classical, contemporary and jazz recordings. Despite the low cost (well below CDs at most record stores), the quality of the recordings is often second to none. They repeatedly manage to get second or third-tier US and European orchestras to turn in recorded peformances of a lifetime, such that you might actually find a better recording of even some works in the traditional repertoire on a Naxos disk than by one of the major orchestras (I'm not kidding!).
The recordings range from re-releases and remasters to original recordings of rarely heard work, so much of it very good. For example, Ned Rorem (1923-), one of this country's leading and most belauded composers, best known for his songs (my favorite recording is Susan Graham's version of them, accompanied by pianist Malcolm Martineau and the Ensemble Oriol), wrote three symphonies in the 1950s, each of them distinctive and worth hearing, but they're rarely performed by American orchestras, and shockingly, Naxos's 1993 recordings were the first ever for numbers 1 and 2. But Rorem's not alone; Naxos has done a herculean job in putting on disk quite a bit of neglected classical fare, both American and not, including work by Ives, Carpenter, MacDowell and others. What's especially great about the site is that if you register, you can hear 25% of any recording (like iTunes), and for about $20 a year, you can stream the Windows Media files directly to your computer and listen to almost everything they've got. If you like to (or have to) pinch pennies like I do, this is a great way to go--and it's also a great entré into classical music in general, especially if you want to branch out beyond the German-Austrian Bach-Handel-Haydn-Mozart-Beethoven-Schubert-Schumann-Brahms circuit you're likely to hear if you go to any major metropolitan symphony orchestra, especially the larger ones (cf. New York Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, etc.).
Which brings me to William Grant Still (1895-1978) and Hisato Ohzawa (1907-1953). Still is often considered the dean of African-American classical composers, and one of the greatest; his orchestral and choral work is highly regarded, and both smaller and some of the larger American symphony orchestras do occasionally perform his highly tonal, lilting, vernacular-infused, neo-romantic pieces, though not enough in my opinion. (The underperformance of almost all the major African-American classical, neo-classical, art, and jazz composers, from Still and R. Nathaniel Dett to living ones like Braxton, Newton, Davis, Hale Smith, Anderson, etc., might be the subject of another post.). The Detroit Symphony Orchestra, in fact, has recorded both his first and second symphonies, the first of which secured his reputation and fame.
Among Naxos.com's most recent offerings, under its "American Classics Series" is a recording (8.559174) of Still's "In Memoriam: The Colored Soldiers Who Died for Democracy," his symphonic poem "Africa," and his "Symphony No. 1, Afro-American," performed by the Fort Smith Orchestra, with John Jeter conducting. Although I don't have the scores in front of me, I will dare to assert that the orchestra and conductor beautifully render the Symphony, which I have on several different recordings; and both the "In Memoriam" and "Africa," which he'd withdrawn from performance and kept unpublished, each possessing his distinctive blues-and-jazz threaded lyrical idiom, were revelations as well.
A composer I had never heard of, but whom I listened to on Naxos.com and whose CD I intend to purchase, is Hisato Ohzawa. The Naxos CD contains the premiere recordings of his sparkling "Piano Concerto No. 3, Kamikaze" and his "Symphony No. 3: Symphony of the Founding of Japan," both written after he returned from years of study in the United States (in Boston, with Converse, Ruggles and for a short time with Schoenberg) and France (in Paris, of course, obligatorily, as for so many composers, with Boulanger, and briefly with Dukas). Dmitry Yablonsky adroitly conducts the Russian Philharmonic Orchestra, with Ekaterina Saranceva on piano, to bring the dazzle of this forgotten artist's music to life. I personally liked the concerto a little more, especially the jazzy, fugitive second movement, which succeeds in combining Japanese pentatonic scales and the blues. But both the concerto (whose opening themes is redolent of a repeating melodic motif in the first movement of Rorem's "Third Symphony") and symphony are enjoyable, and their availability, both for sampling and for purchase, underline why Naxos is such a great site (and music company).
I urge all readers of this blog to audition both the Still and Ohzawa recordings; on the Naxos site there are many more treasures to be found.
To those of you with a little Irish ancestry like me or none at all, a Happy St. Patrick's Day!