Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger:

Classics Explained
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Piano Concerto No. 2
Written and narrated by Jeremy Siepmann
Including numerous examples and complete performance by Jenó Jandó (piano)
BRT Philharmonic Orchestra, Brussels
Alexander Rahbari
Issued 2001, recording location unknown
NAXOS 8.558030-31 [2 CDs 67.57 & 37.28]
  £13.99 AmazonUK   AmazonUS
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Suite: Mother Goose

Written and narrated by Jeremy Siepmann
Including numerous examples and complete performance by Czecho-Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra
Kenneth Jean
Issued 2001, recording location unknown
NAXOS 8.558032-33 [2 CDs 47.29 & 50.09]
 £13.99  AmazonUK   AmazonUS
Opera Explained

Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Written by Thomson Smillie
narrated by David Timson
Including numerous examples taken from the complete recording on Naxos (8.660033-34) by Maria Dragoni; Kristjan Johannsson;
National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland; Rico Saccani
Issued 2001, recorded 1999, location unknown
NAXOS 8.558009 [63.15]
 £4.35 AmazonUK   AmazonUS

Naxos is a particularly enterprising company, constantly seeking imaginative ways to develop its market and at the same time to serve music. These 'educational' projects are nothing if not a testimony to these things.

The big difference in approach between the two orchestral sets and the opera disc reviewed here is simply explained; with the opera there are recorded extracts but no complete performance, whereas with the orchestral music there are both.

Jeremy Siepmann writes and narrates both the Brahms and the Ravel discs, and very good he is too. The approach is not unlike that found in Radio Three's splendid Discovering Music programmes, save that in the latter the BBC orchestras have been engaged to play the extracts specially for the occasion, and it is sometimes possible - and highly enlightening - to isolate details from sections of the orchestra. But on the Naxos discs the extracts are sensitively handled and wholly pertinent to the explanations provided by Siepmann's narration.

Both the Brahms and the Ravel discs come with detailed, stimulating and substantial booklets, each of which runs to nearly 100 pages. Some sections of these are identical, since they are general items on the nature of music ('What Music Is', for example), but not so much as to deter the potential purchaser from acquiring both products. And it is good stuff too, well worth having as reference source, well worth reading as an entertaining insight into the experience music offers the listener.

The Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2 features a complete performance by some Naxos favourites: the pianist Jenó Jandó with the BRT Philharmonic Orchestra, Brussels, conducted by Alexander Rahbari. It's perfectly good, showing off Jandó's phenomenal technique and his sensitivity to the music of yet another composer. (Is he making a bid to be the world's most recorded pianist?) The orchestra plays well, the conducting is purposeful, and as a whole the performance passes muster as a strong one, even though the recording is not the most subtle in the catalogue.

The discs are tightly indexed, with 48 cue points on CD1 and 24 on the shorter CD2. And Siepmann's text is printed in full, so there are no excuses for getting lost if you try to follow everything in detail. Except one, that is (and this caveat applies to the Ravel disc too). While there is a list of contents at the beginning of the booklet, this relates to the booklet itself and not to the CDs; for that information, you have to turn to page 17 onwards. It is also a little frustrating that the option of simply playing the performance is a complicated one, for which you need to find the cue points from information 'hidden' within the booklet.

If you want to listen to Jenó Jandó playing the Piano Concerto No. 2 as a complete performance, you need to go to CD1 tracks 33 and 48, then CD2 tracks 7 and 24. Both here and in the Ravel pieces I wonder whether a better solution would have been to have one CD of explanations, the other of performances. It is not a black and white case, I admit, but in the longer term the customer is unlikely to want repeated hearings of lengthy analytical introductions.

These introductions are pitched at a sensible level by Siepmann. He avoids undue technicalities while also avoiding a patronising tone. This is not an easy balance to strike, and I salute his achievement. None of this music is exactly unknown, but of course there is plenty that we can all learn about established masterworks. And learn we do.

In the Ravel project, it is not made entirely clear which version of Mother Goose we are getting: it is the Suite, not the full ballet score. And surely it would have been useful to have a few examples from the original version for piano duet, since that is how the piece was conceived and came to be written. Making comparisons between the different versions would have been enlightening, particularly since the process of recreating music in a new format was a special feature of Ravel's creative work.

The Ravel performances are perfectly acceptable, though not distinguished. The sound quality has a somewhat generalised nature, and one wonders whether the same might be true of the interpretations as well. The Czecho-Slovak orchestra plays well enough, but in truth there is some stiff competition in this repertoire, and more sophisticated Ravel performances are certainly available, by the likes of Charles Dutoit and his Montreal Orchestra (on Decca). But these Naxos performances certainly don't let Ravel down.

At the centre of these projects is Jeremy Siepmann. His musical judgements are very good, and so is his delivery as a narrator. If he doesn't have the special magnetism of Antony Hopkins, Patricia Hughes or Michael Oliver, who are the best music broadcasters this country has produced, he is unmannered and eminently clear.

David Timson is a good narrator on the Verdi disc, too. His well paced and direct delivery makes it easy to follow the text, which in this single CD issue is not supported by a detailed booklet. Whereas Brahms and Ravel each receives nearly 100 pages of documentation (and all of it in English), Verdi gets just six, and two of these are devoted to biographies of the presenters and (sensibly enough) an advert for the complete recording from which the extracts are taken. Thomson Smillie contributes a very generalised introductory essay, in an attempt to place Aida in the context of the entire history of opera. It won't put your local library out of business.

The disc has an opening section which is historical, so the trend is from the general to the particular. It is undoubtedly cast at a more introductory level than Siepmann's. There are just ten cue points, and while these are clearly indexed at the beginning, they are of limited help if you want to try really getting inside Aida. After sections 1-3, which contain a general introduction, then Verdi's sixty-year career, then the political background of 19th century Italy, we turn to the circumstances in which Aida came to be composed. There follow sections on each of the four acts. For example, the cue point devoted to the Prelude and Act I lasts for nearly seventeen minutes, so isolating the discussion of a particular portion of the score is extremely difficult, whereas in the Siepmann set it is far easier.

All this betrays the fact that the analysis doesn't go very deep, and it is disappointing that the relationship between the music and the drama seldom gets beneath the surface. The story is well explained, to be sure, but the subtleties of characterisation and of musical design and detail are greater than are found here.

There is a well judged treatment of that familiar Verdian tension, the conflict between love and duty, while the pacing and choice of the extracts has been well chosen and skilfully handled by the Naxos engineers. There is also a high proportion of talking to music, particularly in the early stages. And some of the language is indifferently judged, the worst example being when we are told that 'Radamès is nuts about Aida'. Perhaps the intended audience is a young one, but even so. . . .

The recording level seems higher for the narration than for the music, and certainly this balance is less successful than on Siepmann's orchestral discs. The extracts are taken from Naxos's own recording, so its strengths and weaknesses are put under the microscope. For example, the Radamès, Kristjan Johannsson, hardly sets the world alight in Celeste Aida, the technically demanding aria that comes right at the beginning of the opera. And he ends ff, not pp as Verdi wanted.

The recording of the music is nicely atmospheric, and the big scenes involving King Ramfis (the singer is not credited) are impressive, with the chorus and orchestra placed in a convincing perspective.

This Verdi CD is a mixed success, then, but the two introducing Brahms and Ravel are recommended with enthusiasm.

Terry Barfoot

Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901) Aida details above

This is an entry in Naxos's 'Opera Explained' series. It is predominantly a lively talk leading the listener, by the hand, through Verdi's life musical and personal. It also places the life and music in context with the Italian history, the Risorgimento (remember that the great requiem was for Italian patriot, Manzoni, who with Cavour and Garibaldi was one of the central figure of the Italian nationalist movement) and the struggle against Austrian domination.

The narrative refers to the relationship of the opera to the Opening of the Suez Canal. Verdi immersed himself in all aspects of ancient Egypt and wove this into the grand spectacle as well as into the intimacy. Timson's reassuring tones are gently enthusiastic rather than over the top. He has served a similar role in Naxos's CDs of Sherlock Holmes tales.

Music from the complete Naxos set is played sparingly at first but becomes more of a presence as the narrative develops. Motifs are identified and linked to characters in the triangle of two women and one man. Kristjan Johannsson as Radames is clearly tested by Celeste Aida but then who isn't. He is however no trial to listen to if you find a slightly nasal quality acceptable. The orchestra sound on top form and are utterly convincing as is the chorus.

I can easily imagine how this CD could be used in the classroom to guide children through the snobbish operatic thickets and into a personal light. Such are the cross-references to other arts and history that the disc can also be used to prompt parallel lines of research especially into the social and historical history of Italy.

Rob Barnett

Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741)
The Four Seasons. Concertos for strings, Op. 8, 1-4 (c1725)
Takako Nishizaki; Capella Istropolitana.
Introductory booklet and recorded overview by Jeremy Siepmann
NAXOS Classics Explained series 8.558028-29 [2 CDs and booklet]
 £13.99 AmazonUK   AmazonUS  Amazon recommendations

Vivaldi wrote around 550 concertos, including 350 for solo instruments and chamber orchestra, of which this is the most famous. The Venetian public loved it, and nearly 300 years later the work achieved a remarkable popular success, not least with the piped music industry - and probably for the same reasons. It is relatively short, has an uncomplicated structure, attractive tunes and vivid representations of country scenes, complete with thunderstorms, ice, winds, drought, drunks, dogs, birds and other picturesque touches. Thus The Four Seasons might seem an obvious candidate for inclusion in the ambitious Classics Explained series in which Naxos aims to introduce "serious" music to a wider audience.

However, this admirable objective runs into certain difficulties, and after 106 pages of text and a lengthy "structural overview" it is hard not to feel that it's all rather like dismembering a butterfly in order to find out what makes it pretty. Vivaldi's brief descriptive notes are adequate and Mr. Siepmann's amiable strolling commentary adds little that could not be left to an intelligent listener's imagination, or looked up in a reasonably comprehensive dictionary of music. Of the fifteen sections in the accompanying booklet only seven could be said to be strictly relevant to the work itself; indeed, the most useful piece of advice in this respect is probably that on page 68: " simply close your eyes and use your ears". Yet there are no fewer than sixteen verbal prompts in the first movement of Spring, which takes about three and a half minutes. to play. It is impossible to disagree with Mr. Siepmann when he observes that "It is hard to say anything about the beautiful slow movement [of "Winter"] that it doesn't say for itself", though he succeeds in interrupting the music eight times. Since the spoken analysis is precisely the same as the written one this could obviously have been avoided, as could another serious defect in this set: nowhere are all four concertos performed in sequence; each movement is appended to the spoken analyses, which demands deft track-hopping or pre-programming the CD player to achieve anything like complete performance.

In small print on the back of the CD case (though as far as I can see nowhere else) we learn that this performance is by Capella Istropolitana, a reliable ensemble that frequently features in the Naxos catalogue, who give a competent and workmanlike account of the work, presumably on modern instruments. Takako Nishizaki plays the solo parts stylishly, though this is not a conspicuously "historically informed" interpretation.

There is, of course, so reason why a popular work cannot be a fine - even a great - one, and other titles in the series, which include the Brahms second piano concerto and Ravel's Mother Goose and Bolero may well demonstrate that this is a viable formula, and at the very least preferable to bowdlerised "easy listening" compilations. It could, however, be suggested that, having now been heard in restaurants, lifts and on telephone answering machines etc., these concertos are due for honourable retirement.

Roy Brewer

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