PIAZZOLLA:  Tangazo:  Variations on Buenos Aires.  Tres movimientos tanguisticos portenos.  Milonga del Angel.  Sinfonietta for Chamber Orchestra.
Wurttembergische Philharmonie Reutlingen/Gabriel Castagna, cond.
CHANDOS CHSA 5006  TT:  57:11 (5 channel)
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LAWSON:  Celtic Fanfares 1, 2, 3 and 4.  Ghost Train.
HENEGHAN:  House at the North Pole.  Walking the Wild Rhondda.
Heneghan & Lawson Virtual Orchestra
CHANDOS CHSA 5010  TT:  67:55 (5 channel)
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Considering the wide array of spectacular orchestral recordings in their catalog ( film music, Arnold symphonies, etc.) it seems strange Chandos would choose to issue these two surround recordings among their initial five releases in the format.  The name Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992) suggests lively dance music, particularly tangos.  He had a keen interest in "classical music" throughout his life, studying with Ginastera as well as Nadia Boulanger who suggested he "return to his popular roots by exploring the creative potential of the tango."  It seems that's what he did in most of the music on this CD that shows the darker side of the composer, a melancholy almost surrealistic view of the tango which figures prominently in many of the works.  The three-movement Sinfonietta dates from 1953 and helped Piazzolla win his French scholarship.  The 16-minute work ends with an exciting "Jubiloso - Vivace."  For many, the gem on this CD will be the lovely Milonga del Angel, a sad, languid intermezzo.  The Wurttemberg Orchestra plays all of this music very well indeed under Gabriel Castagna, who specializes in performances of symphonic music by Argentine composers.  And a special nod to the player of the treacherous horn solo in Tangazo; whooping horns also have a lot to do in the finale of Sinfonietta. Chandos' sound is superb, with the orchestra in front up close, reflected sound from the back.  It's unfortunate more music wasn't included; 57:11 isn't very much for a premium-priced disk.

The other CD, appropriately in the Chandos New Directions series, offers music by Ian Lawson (b. 1955) and Ben Heneghan (b. 1957) played by a "Virtual Orchestra."  As explained in CD notes, a "virtual orchestra" is a set of digital recordings stored in a computer of every orchestral instrument's complete range of single notes performed "in various musically useful ways - long notes, short notes, spiky notes."  Lawson and Heneghan (and other composers) use these "virtual instruments" as if they were a real orchestra composing on computers.  The technical difficulty of doing this - and doing it right - must be astounding.  The result does, indeed, sound very much like a "real" live orchestra - perhaps a bit sterile but most of the time one would suspect they are hearing a real rather than a "virtual" ensemble.  Both Lawson and Heneghan have highly successful careers in pop and commercial music.  Celtic Fanfares occupies almost half of this CD; Lawson has a different concept of a "fanfare" than I do.  Ghost Train is "a metaphorical train" approaching from afar and disappearing into the distance - although it really doesn't "approach" or "disappear" - and with surround sound it surely could have. Heneghan's two pieces represent strong visual images, sounding more like very effective music for a big screen epic. All of this is fascinating in its own way, but it seems little imaginative use was made of surround sound.  Lawson and Heneghan said they "resisted the temptation to make the orchestra revolve or march backwards and forwards, and instead aimed for as close an evocation of a concert hall (minus the applause) as we could manage."  This seems a rather odd statement - presumably a "virtual orchestra" doesn't perform in a concert hall - and how effective it would have been to have the sounds spread about.  This does happen in the final section of House at the North Pole - and it works!

R.E.B. (April 2003) (NEXT SURROUND REVIEW)