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Major Themes

Major Themes: Our top picks in classical music for September, from Elgar to Beethoven

Welcome to Major Themes, a monthly feature in which classical music experts recommend a must-hear recording based on what's happening at classical stations and programs around the country. This month, we checked in with friends in Minnesota, Ohio and New York, plus the host of Performance Today. Here are their top picks.

Elgar: Enigma Variations; Leonard Bernstein conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra (DG)

Elgar's 'Enigma Variations'
Elgar's 'Enigma Variations,' performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra with Leonard Bernstein
Deutsche Grammophon

The 100th anniversary of Leonard Bernstein's birthday passed last month, but I am still obsessed with exploring the life and music of this extraordinarily passionate musician. I just stumbled across a 1982 recording, Bernstein conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra in Edward Elgar's Enigma Variations. Some Elgar-o-philes consider this recording blasphemous for Bernstein's slow tempos; I find it utterly endearing and sensuous, as if Bernstein is savoring every note. The beautiful sadness of "Nimrod" takes on a sense of eternity, lifting me into the ineffable, beyond time and space. And check out Bernstein playfully sparring with the orchestra in this rare rehearsal footage! ("You talk big, but you don't last!") The full recording was released by Deutsche Grammophone on a 2001 CD, and is still available, thanks be to Bernstein. — Fred Child, host of Performance Today

LISTEN — Elgar: Nimrod


Songs for Strings, arranged by Donald Fraser (Avie)

'Songs for Strings'
'Songs for Strings,' arranged by Donald Fraser

Each year, WCLV enthusiastically celebrates Monty Python Day on Oct. 5. Although this recording has absolutely nothing to do with Monty Python, it likely bubbled to the surface because we're in what you might call "an Anglo state of mind." Songs for Strings is a real delight. Donald Fraser has reimagined works by Dowland, Purcell, Elgar and others, arranging them for strings — specifically, for the English Symphony Orchestra and English Chamber Orchestra. Among the many satisfying cuts on the release are the setting of Antonio Lotti's beloved eight-part Crucifixus, Elgar's haunting — and seldom heard — art song Pleading and an imaginative rendering of Marin Marais' Sonnerie. Fraser shares his own Epilogue for Strings and puts his touch on Lord Lovat's Lament, written in the 18th century by one of Fraser's ancestors. Don't miss the story in the liner notes! — Jenny Northern, station manager, WCLV 104.9 ideastream (Cleveland, Ohio)

LISTEN — Fraser: Epilogue for Strings


Nexus with Michael Burritt: Home

'Home,' performed by Nexus with Michael Burritt

It's late September, which means Rochester, N.Y., has been engulfed by the Fringe Festival. The streets are alive with acrobats, theater, art and — of course — music! The Eastman School of Music got into the act this year with several offerings, including a performance by the Eastman Percussion Ensemble of Steve Reich's epic and revolutionary work Drumming. The ensemble was coached by Prof. Russell Hartenberger, a founding member of the internationally acclaimed percussion group Nexus and an original collaborator with Reich on the piece. So, in the spirit of the Fringe Festival, we challenge you to go to the fringes of your musical selections with Home, the most recent Nexus release, which features a piece (and solo) by Michael Burritt, the director of the Eastman Percussion Ensemble. — Julia Figueras, music director, WXXI Classical 91.5 (Rochester, N.Y.)

LISTEN — Nexus with Michael Burritt: Home


Béla Fleck: Perpetual Motion (Sony)

'Perpetual Motion,' by Bela Fleck
'Perpetual Motion,' by Bela Fleck
Sony Classical

We're gearing up for a pledge drive later this week, and one of our messages is that you don't need to know a lot about classical music to enjoy it. With that in mind, we did a highly unscientific poll of our nonclassical staff members and asked them to tell us their favorite piece of classical music and why they picked it. We got both predictable and surprising answers — and some great stories! Not surprisingly, Pachelbel showed up, as did Saint-Saëns' "The Swan," Elgar's "Nimrod," Vivaldi's Four Seasons and Debussy's Clair de Lune. Some nice surprises included film scores by Hans Zimmer, music by Olafur Arnalds, Chopin's Tristesse Waltz as study music, and Debussy, again — not Children's Corner, but very specifically "Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum." And when I explored the reason for that selection, the answer was Béla Fleck! So, this Friday our request show will feature selections and stories from our nonclassical staff, including a nice little taste of Debussy, courtesy of Fleck, Joshua Bell and some other amazing musicians from the recording Perpetual Motion. It's always exciting to see what door people find into classical music! — Cheryl Dring, program director at WOSU Public Media's Classical 101 (Columbus, Ohio)

LISTEN — Béla Fleck: Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum


Beethoven: Complete String Quartets; performed by Miro Quartet

Miro Quartet
Beethoven's String Quartet No. 14, performed by the Miro Quartet
Miro Quartet Media

When I interviewed the Miro Quartet in March for New Classical Tracks, the members talked at length about how they resolve conflict as four very different people who make music together. Since they had plans to perform in Minnesota in September, I asked if they'd be willing to come to Classical Minnesota Public Radio headquarters to talk more about how we can achieve almost anything when goals are unified and respect exists between people. They were thrilled to be asked! Cellist Joshua Gindele led the discussion, addressing points verbally — such as valuing our differences while finding unity and being in the moment — and then illustrating each by playing and rehearsing. It was an enlightening session — the same kind of forward thinking you'll hear in the ensemble's ongoing project to record Beethoven's complete String Quartets, including a moving performance of No. 14. — Julie Amacher, program director of Classical MPR (St. Paul, Minn.) and host of New Classical Tracks

LISTEN — Beethoven: String Quartet No. 14


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