TORKE:  An American Abroad.  Jasper.  Rapture - Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra.
Colin Currie, percussion; Royal Scottish National Orch/Marin Alsop, cond.
NAXOS 8.559167 (B) (DDD) TT:  61:20
  (for S.G.S. review of this recording, click HERE)

BRUSA:  Firelights.  Adagio.  Wedding Song.  Requiescat.  Suite Grotesque.  Favole
National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine/Fabio Mastrangelo, cond.
NAXOS 8.555267 (B) (DDD) TT:  75:44

Naxos continues to impress fine, well-recorded releases of unusual repertory.  In their American Classics series we have three works of Michael Torke, in their 21st Century Classics series a collection of music of Milanese composer Elizabetta Brusa, all  premiere recordings.  A major point on both of these CDs is sonic quality - it is superb, guaranteed to delight audiophiles, even though two different sites and recording teams are involved.  The Torke disk was recorded in Henry Wood Hall, Glasgow in February 2002, produced by Tim Handley - with no engineer identified. Brusa's music was recorded at the Grand Studio of the National Radio Company of Ukraine, Kiev, with producer Alexander Hornostai and engineer Andrij Mokrytsky.  In both recordings there is a natural sense of space and warmth, with presence, clarity and impact. If these are ever issued in multi-channel sound on SACD, they should be even more impressive.

Torke's music, always effectively orchestrated, usually is repetitive, rather noisy and lacks distinctive melodic ideas.  Surely that's the case with An American Abroad which supposedly takes the listener on a journey.  This "trip," in spite of a lyric introspective interlude, is too long (21:20) and doesn't seem to go anywhere - it just stops.  Jasper, an 11:42 exploration of variants on a descending scale, again shows Torke's expertise at orchestration.  Of greatest interest is Rapture, a 28-minute percussion concerto. The three movements are called Drums and Woods, Mallets and Metals. The composer's notes state "a brutal beating of drums may connote an earthly violence, but when it is organized and insistent, it begins to have a ritualistic effect, and excite a kind of rapture that unites the religious with the sexual."  I'm not quite sure just what this means, but the concerto is exciting to hear, doubtless even more so in live performance. A relatively sedate center movement contrasts with the bombastic nature of the other two.  Performances are superb with conductor Alsop handling all these tricky rhythms expertly, the orchestra playing very well, and soloist Colin Currie (who worked with the composer on the solo part) producing a myriad of percussive sounds. (NOTE: S.G.S. reviews this recording

Elisabetta Brusa was born in Milan in 1954.  After studying at the Milan Conservatory where she graduated with a Diploma of Composition in 1980, she attended Darlington Summer School of Music in England and Tanglewood Music Center in the U.S.  Winner of a number of prestigious prizes, she now teaches composition at the Milan Conservatory.  Brusa's music is highly accessible especially in the shorter works on this CD, and colorfully orchestrated.  Firelights for large orchestra (1992-93), is "a free fantasy inspired by various masterpieces written throughout the centuries for festive events such as fireworks, dances, mythological stories, chimerical and wild scenes and also phantasmagoric images and atmospheres," although it apparently doesn't quote any of these.  Wedding Song (1997) is "a hymn/song-like ode to the inner and outward joy of love and marriage...." dedicated to the composer's husband, conductor Gilberto Serembe.  Adagio (1996) and Requiescat (1994) are both too long (13:19 and 16:34 respectively) for their subjects and musical content.  Inspired by similar works of Albinoni and Barber as well as the Adagietto from Mahler's Symphony No. 5, Adagio, in spite of some retrospective episodes, lacks focus - and although orchestral playing elsewhere on this CD is very fine, strings of the Ukrainian ensemble are far from their best in this music.  Requiescat, also scored for large orchestra, is a single movement inspired by "the spiritual aura of many famous Requiems, but above all by the simple words of the well-known inscription found on tombs:  Requiescat in Pace. Amen, with which it ends (performed by an unidentified singer). Suite Grotesque (1986) has four movements:  Scherzo, Adagio, Andante and Finale, and is more cute than grotesque.  In this music Brusa often writes for whooping horns, which also can be heard in the seven brief sections of Favole ("Fables") originally written for children, utilizing some of the same instrumental identifications used by Prokofiev for Peter and the Wolf.   Each section describes one of Aesop's fables (The Lion in the Donkey's Skin [called The Donkey in the Lion's Skin on the CD jewel-box back cover], The Real Nightingale and the Mechanical One, The Ant and the Grasshopper, The Wolf and the Lamb, The Ugly Duckling, The Philosophical Fly and Puss in Boots).  Entertaining indeed, for older audiences as well.  Fabio Mastrangelo, to whom Firelights is dedicated, brings out humor and wit of the two suites, and does what he can with Adagio and Requiescat.

Both of these CDs are worthy of investigation, particularly at their modest price.

R.E.B. (March 2003)