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Americans in Rome: Music by Fellows of the American Academy in Rome
see end of review for track and performer details
rec. 2007, Weill Recital Hall, New York DDD
BRIDGE 9271A/D [4 CDs: 74:56 + 73:40 + 74:15 + 61:25]
Experience Classicsonline

This four disc collection celebrates music by members of the American Academy in Rome. The recordings come from live performances in New York's Weill Recital Hall. The composers represented include a number of America's most well known of the twentieth century, including Elliott Carter, Samuel Barber, Lukas Foss and Roger Sessions.

The discs are themed by genre; Disc A contains vocal music. Robert Beaser's Four Dickinson Songs open: a set of expressive and engaging songs which make use of Emily Dickinson's wonderfully rhythmic poetry. Beaser's vocal lines soar over the warmth of the piano, at times angular, at times reminiscent of Strauss with beautiful melodies and heart-breaking harmonies - the final song particularly falls into this category. Samuel Barber follows, with four songs which were composed and premiered at the Villa Aurelia, while he was a resident of the American Academy in Rome. The first two of these short and beautifully poised songs are performed with style by baritone Chris Pedro Trakas; the remaining two are matched in quality of performance by soprano Susan Narucki, whose soft-toned voice is coloured with just the right amount of vibrato. The piano parts are uncomplicated and do not intrude; these well written songs demonstrate Barber's excellence as a composer and give a subtle reminder that there is much more to him than the famous Adagio for Strings. Of the same era, Randall Thompson is another well respected American composer, and his Siciliano is a strongly written work with lyrical melodic lines accompanied by the piano.

Ezra Laderman's setting of Michaelangelo's text is an essentially tonal setting, haunting in its complex language and fascinating in its lines. In complete stylistic contrast, Derek Bremel's Spider Love is a simpler waltz, no less convincing, with a hint of humour in Wendy S. Walter's charming text. Jack Beeson at one point studied with Bartók in New York, and is known mainly as a composer of operas. Prescription for Living is part of a setting of a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Dr Heidegger's Fountain of Youth, and is expertly performed by Chris Pedro Trakas and Donald Berman. The dark melancholy of Charles Naginski's Look Down, Fair Moon is instantly appealing. This is a spellbinding song which sets a Walt Whitman text and was written just a few months before the composer's untimely death. Leo Sowerby's The Forest of Dead Trees is similarly dark and sets a poem by Mark Turbyfill. David Rakowski's music shows an instinct for melody writing. His lyrical song was composed for Susan Narucki, who performs it here with conviction. There were Two Swans by Vittorio Giannini is a light-hearted song which sets a poem by Karl Flaster. Scott Lindroth's The Dolphin was written for the AIDS Quilt Songbook in 1995 and the text draws parallels with HIV sufferers. The piano part changes from busy water-like textures to a quiet, chordal texture towards the end. This is a poignant song, with expressive solos for the soprano. The composer is currently Vice Provost of the Arts at Duke University.

Roger Sessions is represented here with an extract from Act II of his opera Montezuma. The instrumental Tableaux which open depict an Aztec procession and contain references to the exotic elements of the Aztec culture. There is drama in this instrumental interlude and one has a sense of following the action through the music. The soprano enters for Malinche's Aria, set in the hall of Montezuma. The style of the accompaniment changes with the new setting, and the voice is given a challenging line, with the tone, colour and direction beautifully controlled. The music is technically demanding for the players, but the effect is pleasing and the performance is excellent.

The disc ends with two orchestrated songs by Elliott Carter, originally written in 1943 but orchestrated in 1979. The songs have a strong American feel and are settings of texts by Walt Whitman and Hart Crane. The language is surprisingly tonal; my knowledge of Carter is mostly centred around his later atonal works. This period of his writing is perhaps more similar in style to his compatriots Barber or perhaps even Copland; he uses tonality but there is a sense of something more in his language. There is an expansiveness that one associates with American music of this time, but there is also a sense of breaking away from tradition. It is curious that the orchestrations were made in the late 1970s; perhaps it is this retrospective that gives depth to the sound-world. The orchestra accompanies well and the soprano line is beautifully performed by Tony Arnold.

Disc B features music for strings and piano, and opens with Aaron Jay Kernis's Mozart en Route, a short trio for violin, viola and cello which fuses the contemporary American style with more traditional melodies. Elements of a Mozart Divertimento for String Trio are used in the piece, as Mozart is taken on a hypothetical journey across America, sampling different styles of music as he goes. This is an enjoyable piece which is light-hearted and entertaining. Much darker is Paul Moravec's Passacaglia, with its veiled opening and solemn opening melodies. Using the BACH motif, the piece is written for violin, cello and piano. There is a gradual increase in tempo and movement throughout the work, and the sense of turbulence and passion grows. Tesserae by Arthur Levering is a strong work for viola and piano which is a set of variations. The piano at times overpowers the viola in the balance of this recording, but the end of the work is particularly successful, with its light and fleeting repetitions. Levering has an interesting compositional voice and I enjoyed his language and the sense of drama in the work.

Sirens by John Anthony Lennon is a calm and elegant trio which gives a marked contrast with the passionate outpourings of the previous works. There is a delicacy within this piece which forces the listener to concentrate on the music. This is an enjoyable and intimate work with much to commend. The longest work on the disc follows. Alexander Lang Steinert's Violin Sonata was composed in 1929 and has a distinctly Romantic feel compared with the Lennon. At times there were also passages which brought to mind a European style of composition, perhaps unsurprising when one takes into account that Steinert studied in Paris with D'Indy and Koechlin. This is a well-crafted work with a particularly appealing slow movement, which is unsentimental but expressive. The sparkling third movement has a particularly detectable French influence, with its jaunty rhythms and shimmering piano writing. This is a convincing performance which is very enjoyable. 

Martin Bresnick's Three Intermezzi for solo cello are expertly performed by Ole Akahoshi. Returning to a more contemporary style, the short pieces are dramatic and demonstrate an array of sounds and timbral contrasts. The first piece is intense and somewhat aggressive, while the second takes on the form of a melodic dialogue which develops with the sense of a well-formed improvisation and a hint of jazz. Here the cello has a distinct voice; one which demands to be heard. The final movement is a virtuoso display, with impressive pizzicato effects and a wonderful sense of direction through the work. For me this is one of the highlights of the disc.

This Strings and Piano CD ends with Stephen Hartke's Beyond Words. Opening with a melancholy and poignant Tallis-inspired string entry, there is an inherent resonance in the harmonies and a compelling direction through the melodies. The piano writing at the opening is sparse and highly effective, punctuating the strings for a change of colour. Composed in the autumn of 2001, the basis of this piece is the Lamentation of Jeremiah, and there are obvious echoes with current events at the time Hartke wrote this piece. This is a deeply moving work with some stunning sounds within it, including some particularly wonderful bell-tolling imagery in the piano part.

Disc C concentrates on music for solo piano, performed ably by Donald Berman. The opening work is Lukas Foss's Fantasy Rondo, an enjoyable work of almost ten minute's duration. The work fuses 1940s swing style music with classical tradition in a convincing and energetic movement which maintains interest throughout. In My Friend Mozart, Kamran Ince creates an expressive and poetic tribute to Mozart, with a wonderful balance of romanticism and minimalist-influenced repetition. George Rochberg's Bagatelles are two short serial movements from a set of twelve, dedicated to Dallapiccola. Walter Heller's Nocturne, the third piece presented - with the works of Rochberg and Ince - as a triptych, shows the influence of popular styles and also contains a hint of early twentieth-century French styles.

Sound Reasoning in the Tower of Babel is a shimmering work which makes use of a range of the textural capabilities of piano writing. Symbolic of a range of compositional styles which were prevalent at the time of composition, Diesendruck incorporates different musical languages into her work, including aspects of composers as diverse as Chopin, Bartok and Fats Waller. This is a successful work which retains a sense of unity and demonstrates Diesendruck's impressive compositional skill. Hunter Johnson's Piano Sonata is a twenty minute work in three movements. A virtuosic first movement displays Berman's excellent piano playing, seeming effortless and expertly controlled, with a wide range of dynamics and expression. An expansive central movement follows, followed by a jaunty and rhythmic final movement. This is a strong work with much to offer, setting out to depict Johnson's home community in the South.

Mark Wingate's Sombras make use of digital processing, which extends the traditional timbre of the piano. Using a combination of delays and pitch shifting, Wingate creates an impressive and sometimes deeply expressive tapestry of sound. The live processing is done with a sense of taste and balance, existing to enhance the live sound rather than to dominate the soundscape. These are successful works with a rhythmic drive that pulsates and creates a forward momentum. I'd be very interested to hear more from this interesting composer.

Two works remain; Billy Jim Layton's Three Studies use serial language to create a somewhat neo-classical set of pieces, with each one focusing on a different musical aspect; the first handles contrasting meter and note groups, the second focuses on jazz while the third uses the baroque forms of fugue and sarabande. These are technically challenging works, played expertly by Berman, who conveys musicality in abundance throughout this disc. Loren Rush's Oh, Susanna takes material from Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro in a set of cleverly devised variations. Elements of Mozart's work become increasingly apparent through this poised and balanced work until it is finally quoted explicitly. Rush incorporates Mozart's music into her own style with elegance and Berman once again gives a fine performance.

The final disc in the set features music for winds and piano. Yehudi Wyner's Commedia opens with a wonderfully explosive solo for clarinet, directed to be played 'LABOOH' (Like a Bat out of Hell). This is a wonderful opening to the disc, with the clarinet immediately exerting its authority and soon joined by an equally energetic piano. The mood calms temporarily before regaining its energy, with short figurative lines heard in dialogue between the instruments. Part 2 is slower and shows the lyrical side of the instruments, with floating lines and expressive harmonies. David Lang's Vent is a well-written work for flute and piano. The opening flute line is given texture and punctuations through unison piano bisbigliandi. Lang's use of textural effect such as this, with a constant fast moving flow of note repetitions and off beat accented punctuations serves to build tension and intensity in the music. Rising pitches continue until the tension breaks, making way for low, lyrical music. The off-beat accents are retained from the previous section as the tension builds up once again. This is for me one of the most memorable tracks on this set of discs, performed here magnificently by Patti Monson and Donald Berman.

Dandelion Wine comes from a different era; Andrew Imbrie composed it in the late 1960s, taking inspiration from the title of a book by Ray Bradbury. The piece takes musical ideas and presents them in different ways, in order to give a sense of coming from different times - as the Dandelion Wine of the title; different bottles from different dates. Its inclusion on a 'music for winds' disc is slightly curious, as although it has an oboe and a clarinet in the ensemble much of the interest comes from the strings and piano. Nonetheless, it is a short and well-formed work which has a sense of elegance and balance and deserves to be heard. Lee Hyla's two works are miniatures composed in 1979 and 1985 respectively. Pre-Amnesia is a clucking piece for alto saxophone, full of contrasts and displays of virtuoso technique. Mythic Birds of Saugerties for bass clarinet is a tribute to upstate New York's bird life. One cannot help but think of Messiaen in such a context, but Hyla's work manages to get some distance from this and retain his own compositional voice. This is an enjoyable piece which shows off the range of the bass clarinet, both in terms of pitch and tone colour.

Bun-Ching Lam is represented here by two movements for flute, - (solo) and = (duo). The concept here is of multiplication; the composition of a solo line acts as the starting point, and then a second line is added, with the idea that further parts can be added, one by one, until large textures (such as orchestral pieces) are created. The initial solo movement is dramatic, with extremes of high register and lyrical low register passages. The duo part of this piece was multi-tracked by Monson so the sounds match perfectly. This is a fascinating work, which very much has the sense of the duo growing out of the solo.

Beams! is a work for trombone and tape by James Mobberley, written as a collaboration with trombonist John Leisenring, who performs it here. The electronic elements come purely from pre-recorded trombone sounds, which are then subjected to a number of differing electronic transformations, creating a range of sounds from the traditional trombone to metallic percussive elements. The language is an interesting one, with timbral variety and a range of harmonies and gestures which go from atonal complexity to almost clichéd moments of tonality. In some ways there was a little too much for me in terms of new ideas and general information to process; in the end I found my mind wandering somewhat, despite the array of sounds. I suspect this is a piece that requires multiple hearings to be fully appreciated, but one that can offer much to the listener who is willing to take the time with it.

By complete contrast, Howard Hanson's Pastorale for oboe and piano is a slow paced, expressive movement which for me has resonances with both Copland and Vaughan Williams. Laura Ahlbeck's oboe tone is a joy to listen to with its rich expression and subtle changes of colour. This is a beautiful piece and a gem in the repertoire.

The disc concludes with three movements from Howard Shapero's Six for Five Wind Quintet. Full of character, Shapero fuses classical style with contemporary rhythms to create an enjoyable mix of sounds. Taking its origins from a duo for trombone and flute, Shapero retains the sense of brass against woodwind in the sound, using the horn and flute as central colours which blend with the other instruments to create a range of timbral variations. The oboe takes a solo role in the second movement, accompanied by muted horn. The Finale is fast moving and has the feel of a comedic dance.

The variety of compositional styles and languages on this set of discs is testament to the work of the American Academy in Rome, supporting some of America's finest composers. The overall quality of music is very high, and each of the works is presented in excellent performances by some fine instrumentalists. This is a wonderful overview of American music of the twentieth century and well worth exploring.

Carla Rees

Track & performer details
CD A: Vocal Music:
Robert BEASER (b.1954) Four Dickinson Songs (2002) [13:25]
Samuel BARBER (1910 - 1981) Songs: In the Dark Pinewood (1937) [1:27], Beggar's Song (1936) [2:02], Of That So Sweet Imprisonment (1935) [1:58], Sleep Now, op 10 no 2 (1936) [2:43]
Randall THOMPSON (1899 - 1984) Siciliano (1978) [2:38]
Ezra LADERMAN (b.1924) Songs from Michaelangelo no 1 (1967) [3:05]
Derek BERMEL (b.1967) Spider Love (1999) [2:29]
Jack BEESON (b.1921) Prescription for Living (1978) [3:53]
Charles NAGINSKI (1909-1940) Look Down, Fair Moon (1940) [2:46]
Leo SOWERBY (1895-1968) The Forest of the Dead Trees (1920) [2:10]
David RAKOWSKI (b.1958) For Wittgenstein (1996) [4:20]
Vittorio GIANNINI (1903-1966) There were Two Swans (1943) [2:39]
Scott LINDROTH The Dolphins (1995) [5:08]
Roger SESSIONS (1896-1985) Two Tableaux and Malinche's Aria from Montezuma (1964) [10:28]
Elliott CARTER (b.1908) Warble for Lilac Time (1943/1979) [6:51], Voyage (1943/79) [5:17]

CD B: Music for Strings and Piano:
Aaron Jay KERNIS (b.1960) Mozart en Route (1991) [3:30]
Paul MORAVEC (b.1957) Passacaglia (2003) [10:21]
Arthur LEVERING (b.1953) Tesserae (2000) [7:32]
John Anthony LENNON (b.1950) Sirens (1992) [10:48]
Alexander LANG STEINERT (1900-1982) Violin Sonata (1929) [17:25]
Martin BRESNICK (b.1946) Three Intermezzi (1971) [10:02]
Stephen HARTKE (b.1952) Beyond Words (2002) [12:52]

CD C: Music for Piano Solo:
Lukas FOSS (1922-2009) Fantasy Rondo (1944) [9:30]
Kamran INCE (b.1960) My Friend Mozart (1987) [3:07]
George ROCHBERG (1918-2005) Bagatelle No IV and V (1952) [2:42]
Walter HELFER (1896-1959) Nocturne (1927) [4:39]
Tamar DIESENDRUCK Sound Reasoning in the Tower of Babel (1990) [8:12]
Hunter JOHNSON (1906-1998) Piano Sonata (1971) [19:27]
Mark WINGATE (b.1952) Sombras (1995) [7:38]
Billy Jim LAYTON (1924-2004) Three Studies for Piano, op 5 (1957) [8:59]
Loren RUSH (b.1935) Oh, Susanna (1970) [10:02]

CD D: Music for Winds and Piano:
Yehudi WYNER (b.1929) Commedia (2002) [16:06]
David LANG (b.1957) Vent (1990) [8:20]
Andrew IMBRIE (b.1921) Dandelion Wine (1967) [2:42]
Lee HYLA (b.1952) Pre-Amnesia (1979) [1:43]
Mythic Birds of Saugerties (1985) [2:56]
Bun-Ching LAM (b.1954) - (solo) = (duo) (1977) [5:49]
James MOBBERLEY (b.1954) Beams! (1986) [8:31]
Howard HANSON (1896-1981) Pastorale for Oboe and Piano (1949) [5:43]
Harold SHAPERO (b.1920) Six for Five Wind Quintet (1995) [6:24]

A: Donald Berman (Artistic Director, piano), Hila Plitmann, Susan Narucki, Tony Arnold (soprano), Chris Pedro Trakas (baritone), Curtis Macomber (violin), Fred Sherry (cello), Tata Helen O'Connor (flute), Charles Neidich (clarinet), Daniel Druckman, James Baker (percussion), Jeffrey Milarsky, Scott Yoo (conductor), Colorado College Festival Orchestra
B: Ida Kavafian, Sunghae Anna Lim (violin), Steven Tenenbom, Jonathan Bagg (viola), Peter Wiley, Ole Akahoshi (cello), Trio Solisti, Donald Berman (piano), Opus One Piano Quartet
C: Donald Berman (piano)
D; Richard Stoltzman (clarinet), Yehudi Wyner, Donald Berman (piano), Patti Monson (flute), Collage Music Ensemble, Tim Smith (alto saxophone, bass clarinet), John Leisenring (trombone), Laura Ahlbeck (oboe), The Curiously Strong Wind Quintet


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