Tuned In: Preseason music spins round and round

08.14.09
Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg
Contra Costa Times

By Sue Gilmore

WHILE waiting for the new season of live performances to kick in come September, I'm listening to new CDs being released Saturday by a couple of the Bay Area's brightest stars in the classical music firmament.

From that live wire Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg and her New Century Chamber Orchestra comes their first collaboration on disc, recorded at Skywalker Studios in Marin under her own NSS Music label and titled, fittingly enough, "Together."

The CD contains two pieces the ensemble played at its well-received season-opening concert in Berkeley last September — the world premiere of Brazilian composer Clarice Assad's "Impressions" and Astor Piazzolla's "The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires."

I'm particularly taken with the Argentine composer's tango-ized riff on an idea first musically rendered by Vivaldi. Piazzolla's "seasons," although originally written separately for his own quintet, were later rearranged into a suite for Gidon Kremer's Kremerata Baltica, and it is this arrangement that Salerno-Sonnenberg fell madly in love with and performs with such fire and sensitivity on this disc.

"Together" also contains Bela Bartok's tuneful and rhythmic Romanian Folk Dances and a pleasant oddity — Jascha Heifetz's piano-and-violin arrangement of Gershwin's "Bess, You Is My Woman Now," as rearranged by David Rimelis for Salerno-Sonnenberg's sweetly seductive violin. The album is available at www.nssmusic.com.

More Mahler

Tomorrow is also the iTunes pre-release digital-download date for the next addition to Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony's ongoing recording project on their SFS Media label of the works of Gustav Mahler. By far the most massive in scope is the Symphony No. 8 in E-flat major, known since its 1910 world premiere as the "Symphony of a Thousand" because it took a whopping 1,034 musicians — instrumentalists, choristers and vocal soloists, plus the composer/conductor himself — on stage to pull it off.

I was in the audience for one of the concerts when MTT and the orchestra were recording it live, and although that was way back in November, the memory is still fresh and vivid. Several of the eight vocal soloists were remarkable, but baritone Quinn Kelsey, singing the Pater Ecstaticus role in Part II, was phenomenal; and the Symphony Chorus, assisted by the Pacific Boychoir and the San Francisco Girls Chorus, was in top form.

So I am particularly pleased to add this CD, which presumably incorporates the best of all four concerts, to my collection, doubly so because it also includes the symphony's gorgeously lush performance of the Adagio from Mahler's unfinished Symphony No. 10, recorded in the spring of 2006. This two-disc set completes the recording of all of Mahler's symphonies (the series has garnered four Grammy Awards so far, and I'll be quite surprised if this one is not nominated); the project will end in 2010 with a new album of Mahler works for voice and orchestra.

Those who take advantage of the iTunes digital download will receive a bonus video with commentary and behind-the-scenes footage on the recording. The official release date is Aug. 25; pre-orders are being taken at www.shopsfsymphony.org.

Rachmaninoff revived

This month's mail contained a third musical surprise, and it's a true curiosity — an advance review copy of Sony Masterworks and Zenph Studios' "Rachmaninoff Plays Rachmaninoff," slated for general release Sept. 22. The third in a series of digital "re-performances" of old recordings of master pianists to "correct" for poor acoustics and inadequate technology (Glenn Gould and Art Tatum reissues preceded it), this CD's title is a bit of a misnomer because only five of the 13 works included are by Rachmaninoff. Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn and Rimsky-Korsakov are also represented, and there are Rachmaninoff transcriptions of two Fritz Kreisler and three Johann Sebastian Bach violin pieces.

But all originally were recorded on monaural 78s between 1921 and 1942, when the legendary Russian composer, renowned for the octave-and-a-half span of his huge hands, was at his prime. Oddly enough, the digital engineers, using a customized grand piano and exacting computer analysis, rerecorded each piece twice. Both versions are presented here, once in regular stereo and then again, for headphone listening, with the tapehead positioned where Rachmaninoff's head would have been during recording, so you can hear what he would have heard while he was playing!

Skeptic that I am, I popped it in for a listen — and while I found the whole thing somewhat lacking in warmth and presence, the inside-the-Rach's head version is definitely preferable. The obvious bonus is getting to hear this profoundly talented pianist's own interpretation of the works, and that, too, revealed a surprise. His famous Prelude in C-sharp minor, a work in such popular demand during his career that he grew weary of playing it, is not delivered by its composer in the clamorous, thundering way we've all heard it done, but in a much more tender and contemplative treatment.