Musical legend tells of a schoolboy, answering an examination question, who put down the statement: "Tchaikovsky wrote three symphonies: numbers four, five and six." To that child, and to the many who share his tastes, Tchaikovsky's Second Symphony does not exist, though Lorin Maazel is conducting it with the National Symphony Orchestra this week -- final performance Tuesday.
For others, this highly distinctive and utterly charming work has a special place in their affections. It does not exploit the composer's neuroses as thoroughly and it seldom requires quite as high a level of energy as some of the composer's later symphonies, but it makes its own statements effectively, and they are statements well worth hearing. Its nickname, "Little Russian," does not imply that this 35-minute work is little or even that it is Russian. "Little Russia" was the rather condescending name given to the Ukraine by Russians in Tchaikovsky's time, and in this case it refers to the three Ukrainian folk melodies effectively used by the composer in this work.
Those who enjoyed Maazel's performance with the NSO should also enjoy his recording with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (on Telarc CD-80131). Maazel interprets it powerfully, lyrically and with a fine sense of color. Tchaikovsky's unique voice can be heard in this interpretation, though this is a fairly early work, composed while he was still finding his style.
On the same disc, Maazel conducts a superb performance of Rimsky-Korsakov's rarely heard and fascinating Second Symphony. Named "Antar" after a 6th-century Arab warrior-poet, this exotically colored music uses Arab folk melodies to tell a legendary story and is more like a tone poem than a formal symphony. It is beautifully performed and effectively recorded in Telarc's stunning digital sound.
Maazel is also featured, with an organization called the World Philharmonic Orchestra, on a live recording (AV 6113) made last year in Rio de Janeiro. The World Philharmonic is a temporary orchestra, made up of leading players from orchestras in more than 50 countries that gets together for a concert once a year to promote international peace and understanding. Frankly, the idea of such an event may be ethically appealing, but it looks like a recipe for musical disaster, what with the variety of languages, the players' unfamiliarity with one another and the problem of getting adequate rehearsal time together.
Amazingly, it worked, at least on this occasion -- a tribute to Maazel's superb musicianship and to the quality of players delegated to this orchestra. Two of the selections, Stravinsky's "Firebird" and Berlioz's "Roman Carnival" Overture, are readily available in other performances, but this recording stands out from the competition. The prime attraction on the record is the brilliant "Choros VI" of Villa-Lobos, otherwise unavailable and superbly interpreted. Santiago Rodriguez Washington pianist Santiago Rodriguez has a record label of his own, Elan Records, produced by his wife Natalia Rodriguez and (so far) devoted exclusively to his work. This may not sound very promising, but in fact it works, and who are we to quarrel with success? One advantage is the fact that the choice of repertoire is left to the artist, not to some marketing executive.
Elan has issued five audio cassettes showing the breadth of Rodriguez's repertoire, from Bach (Elan 1201) to Debussy (Elan 1206), with a Spanish album (Elan 1204) in between. All of these are impressive, but to my mind the two best Elan productions so far are the ones available on compact discs as well as cassettes.
On "Santiago Rodriguez Plays Brahms" (Elan cassette 1300; compact disc 2200), Rodriguez gives dazzling performances of the Paganini Variations, Op. 35; the 16 Waltzes, Op. 39; and the beautiful, seldom heard transcription for left hand of Bach's great Chaconne from the D-minor violin partita. The works are nicely chosen for variety, technical challenge and pure musical interest, and Rodriguez plays them with a superb sense of style and a level of technique that virtually sets the keyboard on fire.
His finest achievement, however, and one of the most brilliant piano recordings I have heard in years, is his Ginastera album (Elan cassette 1202; compact disc 2202). As a piano composer, Ginastera was as fierce, as technically formidable and as lyrically expressive as Prokofiev, whose intensity and wild inventiveness he often calls to mind. In the Piano Sonatas 1 and 2, the Rondo on Argentine Children's Folk Tunes and the Three Argentine Dances, Rodriguez fully matches the composer's conceptions.
These can be heard on both the cassette and the CD, but the CD adds nearly half an hour of music, including more of Ginastera and five numbers from the Spanish album. For adventurous pianophiles, I warmly recommend this recording in either form. The standards of recording and engineering are as high as those of repertoire and performance.
If your local record store does not stock Elan, the company can be reached at P.O. Box 748, Adelphi, Md. 20783.
Pepe Habichuela's Flamenco To do justice to "Flamenco Puro," which has its last two performances today at the Warner Theatre, you really need a video recording -- which may come along eventually. Meanwhile, one fine souvenir is "A Mandeli" (Hannibal 6302), a recording of eight flamenco numbers by Pepe Habichuela, a guitarist starring in the show. The album (available in some Washington stores) is dedicated to Mandelis, Pepe's grandfather and the patriarch of a whole clan of flamenco artists who often perform as a family.
Although it is dedicated to a member of an older generation, and although flamenco tends to be a highly conservative art form, this album includes a few moments of experimental music, where the guitar sounds briefly like a sitar or an electronic instrument. On the whole, however, Pepe sticks to the traditional flamenco forms -- solea, bulerias, fandangos, jaleos, etc., and plays them with extraordinary technical skill.
But a solitary guitarist does not fully represent the large cast and the stage-filling color and action of "Flamenco Puro."
A similar flavor is captured, in a somewhat more rarefied form, in Manuel de Falla's flamenco-inspired ballet "The Three-Cornered Hat," which has just come out on a brilliant new compact disc (Delos D/CD 3060), with Gerard Schwarz conducting the London Symphony. The sound of this disc has a hair-raising impact in the more boisterous moments of the ballet, but it also captures faithfully the gentler pastel colors of Falla's "Nights in the Gardens of Spain," well performed with Carol Rosenberger as the piano soloist.