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Matej MEŠTROVIČ (b. 1969)
Danube Rhapsody [28:50]
Chinese Rhapsody [12:00]
New England Rhapsody [17:17]
Matej Meštrović (piano)
Zagreb Philharmonic Orchestra/Miran Vaupotić
rec. 2018 Vatroslav Lisinski Concert Hall, Zagreb, Croatia

According to the title of rock-and-roll pioneer Bo Diddley’s 1962 song, “you can’t judge a book by the cover”, something as true today as it was back in the 60s.

I hadn’t heard of Croatian composer Matej Meštrović before, so as someone who likes to listen to something off the beaten track, especially where piano and orchestra are involved, I felt that, on paper at least, this new CD could be both interesting, and possibly challenging. It features just three works by the composer, his Danube, Chinese, and New England Rhapsodies respectively.

Would these works be three erudite and in-depth ethnomusicological studies of music from quite distinct and different cultures? The eye-catching CD cover wasn’t really suggesting this, but there was always the possibility that this might have been one of the exceptions to Diddley’s feeling about books and their covers.

Both Danube and Chinese Rhapsodies had some indigenous folk instruments in their respective scores – accordion, tambura (similar to a mandolin), cimbalom (of Háry János fame), and fife in the former, with pipa (Chinese lute), zheng (zither), and erhu (two-stringed fiddle) in the latter.

Of course, including these instruments here could really be like adding a packet of seasoning to a dish to turn it into a goulash, or a sweet-and-sour, rather than setting out to cook an authentic Balkan or Chinese dish from scratch with the right ingredients. The proof of the pudding, they say, is in the eating, so I first decided to take a look at the booklet to find out more about Mr, or Gospodin Meštrović to be more precise.

He is described as one of the most prominent artists in his native Croatia, and, apart from being a composer, he is also a pianist, and the soloist on this CD. The Danube Rhapsody is described as a “monumental four-movement piece” and received its world premiere at Carnegie Hall in 2018. It is “based on the folklore of Danubian countries and features certain traditional Croatian traditional instruments”. Still, so far, so good, I thought.

But, on pressing the CD start button, the first movement – ‘Birth of a River’ – has all the razzle and dazzle ingredients you’d expect to be assailed by, from the easy-listening style of André Rieu, Richard Clayderman – or even Liberace or Semprini, if you’re old enough to remember those two. There is nothing approaching the kind of symphonic development found in another river-themed movement, Smetana’s Vltava from Má Vlast. ‘Danube Dance’ opens uncannily like ‘Waltz 2’ from Shostakovich’s Jazz Suite No 2, before three-in-a-bar gives way to two, when the piano presents a second, and livelier dance, which builds in volume and excitement, before abating. Then a new waltz, with distinct Italian overtones – well, it’s not that far away from the Balkans – brings things to a gentle close – save for a somewhat superfluous final loud chord.

The harmonies at the start of ‘Water Reflections’ are a little more inventive, and provide an attractively atmospheric background to the distinctive sound of the cymbalom, as it meanders freely in a world of quasi harmonic-minor scales, all calculated to add some Eastern European feel, but, of course, something that’s been heard so many times in the past, to paint a similar picture in sound.

For his finale, ‘Danubius’, the Latin name for the river, the composer initially plumps for a cross between Karl Jenkins’s Palladio, and the ‘Pines of the Appian Way’, also the closing piece, this time from Ottorino Respighi’s Pines of Rome, which similarly depicts some kind of advancing movement, in Respighi’s piece the triumphant Roman army on the move. But after two minutes or so there’s a complete volte-face, when the piano introduces a rather banal ‘um-pah, um-pah’ accompaniment, over which the clarinet weaves an equally clichéd melody full of Eastern European promise. The rest of the woodwind then follows suit, before the full orchestra gets a chance to join in. The quasi-Respighi theme picks up momentum once more, until there is a further pause, and a much calmer section ensues, initially for piano alone, and cast very much in the 70s easy-listening style of French crossover-composer Saint-Preux (born 1950). This leads to a reprise of the opening, as the ‘army’ picks up on the ever-more-triumphant-sounding march, building in momentum to the close, and no doubt ensuring a spontaneous ovation.

The Chinese Rhapsody is cast in a single movement, and is apparently inspired by four traditional melodies. The piano opens, based around a single repeated note, before the Chinese traditional instruments make their appearance with a drawn-out melodic section which does suggest oriental origins, while building in volume as the major-key tonality takes over. At this point in the proceedings, it starts to sound like a much earlier, and certainly better-known Sino-European pastiche, the ‘Yellow River Piano Concerto’, which was the subject of a MusicWeb International review back in 2013. A quiet, meditative section from just the Chinese instruments initially, builds into another climax where the music pauses once more, this time allowing the piano to embark on a short cadenza-like passage, before leading off the somewhat trite closing-section, which has all the best, or probably truer to say, worst turns of musical phrase which light-music composers would often toss into the mix, when signalling they are in ‘Chinese Takeaway’ mode’. There’s now a vague fusion of pentatonic, chromatic, diatonic, and modal scales and harmonies, all adding to the final build up, which, to be fair, does revisit a couple of themes heard earlier.

The three-movement New England Rhapsody begins with ‘New England Vibe’, which opens with a chordal ostinato, to the accompaniment of a snare-drum rhythm. There is a kind of ‘square-dance’ or ‘hoe-down’ feel to the music, given that, unlike the Balkans, or China, the US state of New England hasn’t really got any specific musical thumbprint to make use of. There’s another of the composer’s usual pauses, as he changes from one idea to the next, and then embarks on a phrase that resembles almost note-for-note, the main theme from Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera, which first appeared on the scene back in 1986. A further pause follows, and the piano takes up another version of this, now heard against an accompaniment figure that is not light-years away from another Lloyd Webber classic – ‘Memory’, from Cats – and which brings the movement to its decidedly soothing conclusion.

‘Poco a poco’ was actually written some thirty years earlier, as the slow movement of a projected piano concerto, and very much harks back to the world of Saint-Preux once more. It starts with a single-note piano line given out over a string background, in the best of easy-listening traditions, followed by a contrasting middle section in the minor key, which adds in the almost-obligatory solo violin, while the piano decorates this with gentle filigree. The opening returns, and, apart from a one-off rather odd juxtaposition of harmonies, the end is reached with little more ado.

Meštrović entitles his finale ‘Fly over North Hampton’, which, musically-speaking, seems to be looking back to the dance-like parts of Danube Rhapsody, though any reason for this isn’t made apparent. But the composer soon uses one of his seemingly-favourite devices again – the pause – and we’re almost back to the calm and serenity of the ‘New England’ slow movement for a minute or so, before, after a further pause, the dance-like feel of the start kicks in once more. Could this all, perhaps, have alluded to the dances of a Native American tribe that might formerly have inhabited this part of New England? Well, there’s no time to consider this, because a final brief reference to the Phantom of the Opera theme from the opening movement takes charge, and the ‘flight’ has landed – ostensibly in a blaze of glory.

Hopefully you should now have a fair idea what to expect, or conversely, what not to expect, from this. Frankly, I didn’t dislike it as such, given that there is clearly a healthy interest in this kind of easy-listening product, and which can still be entertaining, effectively orchestrated, and direct in its approach, even if occasionally embarrassingly so. Equally, though, there will be those who find it lacking in any real musical substance or challenge whatsoever, whether simply by listening to it, or merely rejecting it out of hand.

Philip R Buttall

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