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CLASSICAL CDs for JAN/2001, Pt. I
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HOWARD HANSON: Piano Music. Thomas Labe, piano. Naxos American Classics 8.559047:

Most of the works on this disc were written when the American composer Howard Hanson was in his twenties and early thirties ­ from 1919 to 1935, with the exception of "For the First Time," scored for piano in 1970. Those of you who love Hanson's orchestral music, for which he is well known, will find much listening pleasure in these delightful tonal and emotionally moving nougats. Poemes erotiques refers to the psychological states of peace, joy and desire and are wonderful evocations of the moods they depict, especially the powerful and rather dark 'desire.'

Thomas Labe completed the 1918 Piano Sonata from Hanson's "musical shorthand." The titled sections merge into one. Andante expressivo is resplendent with a quiet beauty, Elegie herbique is intermittently strong and meditative and Triumphal Ode ends the work with the typical Hanson optimism. Three miniatures ­ Reminiscence, Lullaby, and Longing charm the listener. The longest work on the disc (19 minutes) is the piano version of the orchestral score "For the First Time." It is a series of 12 vignettes representing impressions ranging from Bells to Clowns to Deep Forest to Serious Conversations etc.

Hanson devotees will want to add this disc to their collection. Listeners new to Hanson's music will find this CD a felicitous introduction to this accessible American composer.

- Robert Moon


MAHLER: Symphony No. 2 "Resurrection" - Emiko Suga, sop./Nathalie Stutzmann, contralto/Shinyukai Choir/Saito Kinen Orchestra/Seiji Ozawa - Sony Classical S2K 89374:

This very exciting performance was recorded just a year ago in Tokyo before a live audience. There's no information provided on the orchestra or choir - except that Ozawa founded the orchestra - but damn they're good. Sometimes accused of sounding asleep on the podium, Ozawa is in no danger of such a criticism here - this is a white-hot , passionate, performance that reminded me of some of the nearly over-the-top ecstatic Bernstein treatments of Mahler. While I couldn't put my hands on my copy of the Gilbert Kaplan Mahler Second for comparison, I think even it is surpassed by this new version. Sound is among the best I've heard from such large symphonic-choral forces. The Urlicht finale soars to higher and higher levels of heavenly rapture, and both soloists may be unknown but are superb. I'm looking forward to Sony Music releasing this on SACD multichannel SACD eventually!

- John Sunier

ALEXANDER GRECHANINOV: Symphony No. 5; Missa oecumenica - Soloists/Russian State Symphony Orchestra/Symphonic Cappella/Valeri Polyansky - Chandos CHAN 9845:

Grechaninov was a thorough conservative musically, of the same cloth as Rachmaninov and Glazunov - and also sharing with those two an exile from Russia (he emigrated to New York City in l939). His post-Romantic symphonic style was abstract, without the programmatic or autobiographical slant of Shostakovich or even Mahler. This last of his five symphonies may remind one of Borodin's stirring Second Symphony, with a strongly heroic Russian folk style throughout. Hints of Tchaikovsky may also come to mind, though the work was written in the last l930's. Both it and the mass are premiere recordings. The Missa, while using the Catholic liturgy, has images from Russian Orthodox, Gregorian and Hebrew chant in a life-affirming statement that has been compared to Beethoven's Missa solemnis. Both performances and recording are exemplary.

- John Sunier


Liturgical works old and very new in the next pair of CDs =

LUIS BACALOV: Misa Tango; Tangosain; PIAZZOLLA: Adios Nonino, Libertango - Martinez, mezzo/Domingo, tenor/Hector U. Passarella, bandoneon/Luis Bacalov, piano/Chorus and Orch. Of the National Academy of St. Cecilia/Myung-Whun Chung - DGG 289 463 471-2:

Bacalov is an Argentine Jew living in Rome who has scored a number of film soundtracks, including the recent Il Postino. His nostalgia for his home country plus his feeling that dance was once an important part of worship and should not have been banned from the liturgy resulted in the concept of a tango mass. He follows the Vatican's decision to use contemporary language and since his is Spanish that provides the few words for the five basic sections of the mass. Bacalov's intent was to accentuate that there is one God for all, despite the different religions. The solo bandoneon takes on the role of lamentation throughout the mass, sometimes in a duo with the piano. The musical language may remind one at some points of the Bernstein of Candide or even the wild dances in West Side Story. The three short instrumental tangos are lovely orchestrations by Bacalov featuring his piano - the first piece being his own in the style of Piazzolla and the other two perhaps the most-played of Piazzolla's tangos.

- John Sunier

CHERUBINI: Requiem, Marche funebre - Chorus of the Italian Swiss Radio/Cantemus vocal group/Italian Swiss Radio Orchestra/Diego Fasolis - Naxos 8.554749:

Though an Italian, Cherubini was a dominant figure in French music for over half a century. His Requiem commemorated the death of Louis XVI during the French Revolution. It is unusual in having no vocal soloists at all; all seven sections employ only the choral forces. Berlioz felt this was Cherubini's greatest work. The recording was made during a broadcast by the Italian Swiss Radio in a large cathedral in Lugano, Switzerland and is rich and detailed with a good feeling of the venue.

- John Sunier


And here's yet another Requiem, a bit more contemporary =

PHILIP GLASS: Symphony No. 5 - Requiem, Bardo, Nirmanakaya - Soloists/Morgan State Univ. Choir/Hungarian Radio Children's Choir/Vienna Radio Sym. Orch./Dennis Russell Davies - Nonesuch 79618-2 (2 CDs):

When Glass was commissioned to create this work for the Salzburg Festival's millennium celebration he envisioned a work that would represent a broad range of the great wisdom traditions of the world. He worked with a minister and a professor in selecting vocal texts covering from before the creation of the world through life on earth and in paradise, and closing with a dedication to the future. Sources include the Koran, the Bible, Zuni teachings, The Mayan Popul Vuh, the poet Rumi, African, Hawaiian and Chinese sources, Hebrew writings, The Bhagavad Gita and other East Indian texts. The original languages of the texts were translated into English, thereby showing the common threads shared by all these different traditions. The larger scale of the work - his Fifth Symphony - seemed to call for soloists, chorus and a children's chorus.

Separate card-stock booklets are provided for the English translations of each of the dozen sections of the Symphony. It is fascinating to see the similarities between such widely disparate spiritual paths as the Koran and the Bodhicaryavatara. There is much variety in this work; Glass seems to be moving in the direction John Adams moved years ago: away from strict minimalism. The childrens' chorus is especially effective in some of the more ecstatic portions, such as Love and Joy. And with five soloists there is more variety in the sound than, say, an orchestral song cycle with just a single vocal soloist. The original recording was made last Spring in Vienna but additional recording and mixing was done later in New York. Sonics are fine and the lyrics are clearly understandable the majority of the time, though the librettos are useful to have at hand. This is an important composition that addresses the need for greater understanding among the world's spiritual paths - just as Luis Bacalov strived to achieve in his Misa Tango.

- John Sunier

Here are several vocal music CDs of great interest =

HANDEL: L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed Il Moderato. Ensemble Orchestral de Paris, John Nelson, conductor. Bach Choir, John Dickson chorus master. Christine Brandes, Lynne Dawson, David Daniels, Ian Bostridge, Alastair Miles. EMI 7243 5 45417 2 8:

This pastoral ode is certainly one of Handel's finest. The composer adapted it from Milton's joyous youthful poems, L'Allegro and il Penseroso, and concluded it with Charles Jennens' ponderous doggerel, il Moderato. As Paul Lang says, "it's difficult to follow apotheosis with homily." No matter. The music is glorious, witty, and persistently inventive, even when the words fail it. Yet for the most part, this recording captures the work's spirit.

Tenor Ian Bostridge is stunning, particularly in the famous "laughing chorus" in which he evokes a polyphonic merriment that made me hold both my sides. The impetus he imparts to every aria is truly infectious. The chorus is equally splendid, evoking the jubilant atmosphere that Handel intended. When it sings of "throngs of knights and barons bold," you almost seem them looming over the hills. Countertenor David Daniels sings the touching air "Hide me from Day's garish eye" with requisite sweetness. Previously, in Serenade (Virgin Classics 7243 5 45400 2 8) he tended to overuse vibrato; however, here he tones it down, producing a more subtle emotive effect. Soprano Christine Brandes sings with grace and humor, most notably in "Come, and trip it as you go," although she over-trills her r's at times. Lynne Dawson seems to be missing a sense of frivolity. Her rendition of "Or let the merry bells ring round" while skillfully sung, seems so serious. Not quite jocund enough. When she sings "But oh! Sad virgin" with its difficult melismas, it sounds like she's struggling, rather than making it seem effortless. In this glorious production, hers is the only non-extraordinary performance.

There is a lot of competition out there for this piece; most notably, John Eliot Gardiner's version on Erato (alas, missing "But oh! Sad virgin") and Robert King's solid performance on Hyperion. In this recording John Nelson conducts a spirited L'Allegro well worth prancing about.

--Peter Bates


CHOPIN: Songs (Volume 12 of the Complete Chopin Piano Works). Ewa Podles, contralto; Garrick Ohlsson, piano; Elizabeth Mann, flute. Arabesque Z6746:

It doesn't matter what voice range Chopin originally scored his 19 songs for. They have been performed by mezzo-sopranos, sopranos, and sometimes with no singer at all, just a lone piano. It was a stroke of genius for Arabesque to have enlisted contralto Ewa Podles to sing them. Good contraltos occur rarely on new releases these days, even more rarely than their male equivalent, the countertenor. Not since Kathleen Ferrier have I heard a contralto mine such quarries of feeling. Her rendition of "Nie Ma Czego grzeba" ("Faded and Vanished") is so melancholic, so early Romantic, that it could have been penned by Franz Schubert. The melismas at the end of each stanza extracted tears from me, a feat that hasn't occurred in recent memory. Her rendition of "Out of My Sight" dramatically conveys the conflicting emotions of one lover parting from another. Elly Ameling and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau sing Schubert lieder with similar finesse, pacing, and eloquence.

Scholars disagree, but Chopin appears to have written most of these songs in two periods, 1829-1831 and 1847. The early ones were old-fashioned even for their time. Because of their strophic style and naïve folk elements, they belong more to the pre-lied era of the late 18th century.

Only in songs like "Melodia" (1847) does Chopin approach the emotional depth of the emerging art song. The piano works he composed at the same time blazed more brightly, popularizing such obscure forms like the nocturne. That said, I believe it is a pity Chopin didn't write more of these excellent songs. They transcend the limited forms in which he fit them. They are morose ("The Two-Fold End", raucous ("Drinking Song"), martial ("The Warrior"), even slightly earthy ("Lithuanian Song").

Pianist Garrick Ohlsson, who has performed in the previous 11 volumes of this series, proves an excellent accompanist. His technique is sensitive, well paced, and flamboyant only when required, never showy. Like pianist Gerald Moore, he never draws attention from the vocal pyrotechnics of his singer.The final piece, "Variations in E Major for Flute and Piano" (for "Non piu mesta" from Rossini's La Cenerentola) is a charming trifle composed when Chopin was fourteen. Although a bit anti-climactic after these marvelous songs, the piece shows that Chopin, while not a child prodigy like Mozart or Mendelssohn, was clearly on the way to greatness. Flautist Elizabeth Mann and Ohlsson render the piece well. Compulsive Chopin collectors will be happy to have it.

--Peter Bates


RENÉE FLEMING: Opera Arias--London Philharmonic/Charles Makerras--Decca 289 467049:

With her gorgeous voice, good looks, and great stage presence, Renée Fleming is the reigning diva of the new century. She has it all--a pure, bright, accurate soprano voice, easily and evenly produced--and she can do it all, singing effectively in a variety of styles from coloratura to lyrical and dramatic roles to scat. She hasn't made many records yet, and this one is a gem, offering a wide range of mostly familiar opera arias. In every case the sounds we hear are ravishing, and in every case her intelligence and sensitivity make her characterizations believable, from the grave nobility of Bellini's Norma to the breathless naivete of Massenet's Manon to the wistful longing of Puccini's Butterfly. The fundamental soundness of her technique and the charm of her personality are everywhere evident. Mackerras and the London Philharmonic provide fine support, and the sound is good. If you've read my reviews you know that my praise is seldom unalloyed, but here I can't find anything to complain about. Please go out and get this disc now; you won't be disappointed!

--Alex Morin


Wagner: Love Duets - Deborah Voigt, sop/Placido Domingo, tenor/Royal Opera House Covent Garden Orchestra/Antonio Pappano - EMI 7243 557004

You would expect a good deal from two of today's leading singers joining in Wagner's most ecstatic love music--the great duets from the closing scene of Siegfried and Act 2 of Tristan und Isolde (with the ending Wagner wrote for concert performance). Unfortunately, this disc is something of a disappointment. Domingo's voice is strong and clear and his characterizations are noble and effective, if you can put up with his unidiomatic German . But Voigt is a pale nonentity beside him; she doesn't have the strength or richness or vitality required for Brunnhilde and Isolde. Neither of them, individually or together, really conveys the passionate lyricism of Wagner's inspired music. The orchestral accompaniment is somewhat scrappy, and the sound isn't as good as we expect from EMI. There is nothing here to compare with the glorious singing of Flagstad and Melchior in these duets. However, there are very few Wagnerian vocalists of any real merit these days, and I suppose these two are about as good as we're likely to get at the moment

-Alex Morin

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