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James AIKMAN (b.1959)
Violin Concerto Lines in Motion (2009) [23:02]
Ania's Song - A Pavane, for string orchestra (2006) [9:11]
Concerto, for alto saxophone and orchestra (2010) [23:03]
Charles Wetherbee (violin)
Taimur Sullivan (alto saxophone)
St. Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra/Vladimir Lande
rec. St Catherine Lutheran Church, St Petersburg, Russia, 23-24 June and 2-3 July 2010. DDD

Experience Classicsonline

The blurb for this CD says that American composer James Aikman's works "embrace a colorful tapestry of stylistic influences, including jazz and pop", a signal, presumably, that Aikman's music is approachable and perhaps even a bit minimalist or crossover?

The three works featured here are certainly attractive and likely to appeal to a wide audience - but not one raised on a diet of André Rieu, Ludovico Einaudi or even Philip Glass. Those familiar with John Adams will find some communality, but otherwise Aikman's music sits well with recent entries in Naxos's mammoth 'American Classics' series, such as Gabriela Lena Frank (review), David Gompper (review) or Lawrence Dillon (review). Aikman's is American music, slightly, and it is populist, but those are not defining or even important characteristics. Though naturally different in a number of ways, both concertos can be characterised as spirited, free-flowing, often virtuosic, colourfully orchestrated, loosely tonal, modern-lyrical creations. In between, for good measure, lies the reflective, simple, Barber-lite Pavane for strings.

The St Petersburg SSO are not Russia's greatest orchestra, nor do they have the illustrious history of some of the better-known counterparts, but they have made some fairly decent recordings over the years - Gliere's orchestral music on Marco Polo in the 1990s, most notably (8.223675) - and can count Richter, Janssons and Temirkanov among their stellar former conductors. Their latest director is Vladimir Lande, also oboist for the Poulenc Trio, and this is his first recording for Naxos.

American saxophonist Taimur Sullivan also makes his debut for the label, though he has appeared on more than two dozen recordings for other houses. His fellow American Charles Wetherbee, also violinist for the Carpe Diem Quartet, has appeared on Naxos twice before, in the striking concertos of contemporary American composer Jonathan Leshnoff (8.559398, 8.559670). Both CDs were very well received both for Leshnoff's music and Wetherbee's performances - on the earlier disc (8.559398), in fact, he appeared as soloist in Leshnoff's Violin Concerto and as a member of Carpe Diem in his First Quartet.

Here, both Wetherbee and Sullivan, often pitched against the full strength of the orchestra, put in splendid performances, whilst Lande deftly guides the St Petersburg through the thick and thin of Aikman's scores.

The CD title is a bit daft; 'Venice of the North' is nothing more than a reference to St Petersburg and Aikman's fondness for the place - but perhaps Naxos did not realise that 'Venice of the North' is also the nickname of Amsterdam, Stockholm, Hamburg and even Manchester? Sound quality is very good, although the saxophone can be a little overbearing - its sound being that much more resonant than the violin's, it needs to be miked less closely - and a church is never the best of places for recording orchestras. The CD booklet includes an essay on Aikman and his three featured works.

There is also a rather ingratiating personal note from Aikman himself, which some may wish they had left unread. Chiming with the post-modern sentiment of the blurb, he writes: "Taimur Sullivan, Charles Wetherbee and Maestro Lande are classical music artists of the highest level, who have also listened to and played jazz and various forms of pop music. That is precisely how we are genuinely able to project the variety of stylistic nuances I call for in the music on this recording, as vastly different as: 'a la rock guitar solo,' 'breathy, like Paul Desmond' [...] 'give and take as in dancing'".

Fortunately, there is no prerequisite for any listener to be similarly trendy: whatever Aikman claims he has included in the recipes for his concertos, the results are fat-free, tasty musical fare that will appeal to most palates. The CD is rather short, though - dropping the relatively anaemic Ania's Song for a meatier orchestral work might have given better value for money.

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