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
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