Thursday, May 24, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Classical Music

CD releases: Classical NW performers offer plenty of good choices

Seattle Times music critic

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One thing is increasingly clear from our mailbox: more excellent Northwest artists are recording CDs, discs that can stand with some of the best produced today on the national scene.

The diversity is staggering, too, from basset horns and pipe organs to choral, orchestral and piano music. Here's an assortment of excellent new releases.

"American Sonatas," Judith Cohen (Pear Records): Judith Cohen, an excellent solo and chamber pianist who also is artistic director of the Governor's Chamber Music Festival, has three CDs out on the new Pear Records label.

They include this supercharged but immaculate recording of Copland's Piano Sonata, Bernstein's Sonata for Clarinet and Piano (with the very fine Eugene Zoro, clarinet) and the Sonata No. 1 of Brian Pearson in its first recording. (Other discs include a Bartok/Ginastera pairing, and a particularly nice Prokofiev CD with two of the Northwest's best string players: cellist David Tonkonogui and violinist Mikhail Schmidt, both of the Bridge Ensemble).

These are not works you encounter every day, and it's well worth going out of your way to hear such good performances.

"Bassoonist Arthur Grossman" (Crystal Records): Grossman, McColl's fellow faculty member at the University of Washington, also has a fine new CD out with some most interesting repertoire pairing the old and the new.

In the former category are three relatively easygoing Beethoven Duos for Clarinet and Bassoon (with the commendable Franklin Kowalsky, a regular at the Seattle Chamber Music Festival).

In the latter are three contemporary pieces, in which Grossman is joined by pianist Peter Mack and fellow bassoonist Seth Krimsky of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, both stellar.

The three newer works are by Ray Luke (the aptly titled "Contrasts"), Ronald Roseman ("Fantasy") and Wolfgang Plagge (the "Trio" for two bassoons and piano, whose first movement in particular presents formidable technical challenges, all met with panache).

"American Classics: Samuel Jones" (Naxos): Jones, presently the composer in residence at the Seattle Symphony, is represented here by two important works that underscore his standing as one of the best and most promising heirs of the American symphonic tradition.

One is "Roundings," commissioned by the Amarillo Symphony Orchestra as a sort of modern-day Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition" (Jones' suite depicts scenes from public murals created under the auspices of Roosevelt's New Deal), with James Setapen conducting.

The other is the Cello Sonata (with the fine cellist Emmanuel Lopez and pianist Denise Parr-Scanlin).

Big, broad and unmistakably American, "Roundings" is firmly rooted in the tonal language of Barber and Diamond, but with plenty of dissonance and a muscular energy that propels the music.

The sonata, written with considerable lyrical freedom, has a second movement that quotes most effectively from Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, a work that had special meaning for the Fischer Duo (who commissioned it).

The cello, too, has an important role in "Roundings," introducing the movements much as the "Promenade" theme did for Mussorgsky.

"Vintage Woodwinds," Saeculum Aureum Players (Crystal Records): William McColl and his basset horn, that right-angled vintage clarinet that looks as if someone bent it over his knee in a fit of pique, are the stars of this surprisingly jolly disc of Mendelssohn and Mayr works played on early 19th-century instruments.

Despite some clanking of authentic-instrument keys, the charms of the basset horn are very evident, especially in the two high-spirited Mendelssohn Konzertstücke. The performances are virtuosic and full of life, and McColl has some very adept partners in clarinetist Richard Spece, flutist Jeffrey Cohan and Bonnie Garrett, fortepiano.

"Christa Rakich at St. Mark's Cathedral" (Loft Recordings): The huge Flentrop pipe organ at St. Mark's was damaged in the recent earthquake, and this CD (recorded during the American Guild of Organists convention here in 2000) should make its listeners wish to leap forward with contributions toward the organ restoration.

No single disc could capture the full range of this mighty instrument. But this one comes close, with the very capable and expressive Rakich probing the majesty of Bach ("Kyrie, Gott Heiliger Geist"), the romanticism of Franck ("Fantasie in A"), some mercurial Hindemith (the "Sonata 1"), and the adventurous "Rio abajo rio" of Pamela Decker, who actually makes the Flentrop tango.

It is highly expressive playing from a most impressive organist on an instrument whose 32-foot bass stops will make your speakers do the tango, too.


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