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CLASSICAL CDs , Pt. 1 of 2 - January 2002

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GLUCK: Orfeo ed Euridice--Bernarda Fink, mezzo/Veronica Cangemi, sop/Maria Cristina Kiehr, sop/René Jacobs, cond/Freiburg Baroque Orchestra/RIAS Chamber Choir--Harmonia Mundi France 901742 (2 CDs):

Orfeo ed Euridice was an attempt by Gluck and his librettist, Raniero de Calzabigi, to purge 18th-century opera of its excesses and artificialities by combining Italian lyricism with the noble tradition of French tragédie lyrique. Florid and easily transferrable da capo arias were replaced by simpler melodies integrated into the plot and with a minimum of ornamentation, secco recitatif was replaced by orchestral accompaniment throughout, and everything was focused on the expression of sentiment and dramatic development. Their "reform" operas weren't really path-breaking, in that little like them followed, but they deeply influenced Mozart and others who came later.

\Orfeo exists in a number of forms, of which the most important are the original Italian version performed in Vienna in 1762 and a French revision in 1774 that included the ballet interludes required by Parisian audiences and other new material. There are also a 1859 Berlioz edition and several conflated versions, and no two of the many recordings are exactly alike. René Jacobs here offers us the 1762 Vienna version, the most concise and dramatically effective of the lot, in a performance that is outstanding in every respect. He and his talented forces are experienced and knowledgeable Baroque musicians, and what we hear is consistently taut, idiomatic, and very beautiful. Bernarda Fink's warm, clear and expressive mezzo voice (replacing the original alto castrato) is ideal for Orfeo, the others aren't far behind in their smaller roles, and the chorus and orchestra are impressively rich, sonorous, and melodious. This is easily the best recording this wonderful opera has received and I can't recommend it too strongly.

--Alex Morin

POULENC: La Voix humaine; La Dame de Monte-Carlo--Felicity Lott, sop/Armin Jordan, cond/Orchestre de la Suisse Romande--Harmonia Mundi HMC 901759:

These two works are strange and disturbing. Poulenc wrote La Voix humaine in 1959, describing it as a "lyric tragedy in one act" and as "frightening and ultra-sensitive". Based on a text by Jean Cocteau, for 40 minutes we hear only the voice of a forlorn woman on one end of a series of telephone conversations with the lover who has left her. It deals with events like interruptions of service and an attempted suicide and is dominated by expressions of grief and regret. The music is astringent, consisting largely of dramatic declamation without much melodic content. La Dame de Monte-Carlo, written in 1930, is also based on a short play by Cocteau. It's a monologue by an aging woman trying her last run of luck at the gambling tables while she too contemplates suicide, and is very similar in style and feeling.

The English soprano Felicity Lott has had a considerable operatic career and in recital has specialized in French songs. Her diction isn't as good as that of the best native French singers--her vowels are too open and her consonants not crisp enough--but she has a clear, strong voice, understands the nature of the language, and conveys the texts effectively and sensitively and with intelligence. The accompaniments are excellent, as is the sound. This may not be to everyone's taste, but it's consistently interesting and imaginative, and often quite moving.

--Alex Morin

Magic! - Peter Richard Conte at the Wanamaker Grand Court Organ of Lord & Taylor, Philadelphia - Dorian xCD-90308 (HDCD):

The story behind this amazing pipe organ is told in the 54-page booklet. It is the largest and most complex working musical instrument in the world. Department store owner Wanamaker bought a massive organ originally built for the l904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition. Although it was the world's largest concert organ at that time, over the years he added to it constantly - even devoting one floor of his store to an organ workshop - and by the 1930's the total number of pipes had surpassed 28,000. The organ is different from any other in its success at imitating the sounds of actual orchestral instruments - especially the strings. In this it surpasses even the giant symphonic organs of the French School. It's ability to portray the timbre of different instruments makes it ideal for playing orchestral transcriptions, as are all six selections on this CD.

They include Night on Bare Mountain, The Sorcerer's Apprentice, Elgar's Cockaigne Overture and Wotan's Farewell and the Magic Fire Music from Wagner's The Valkyries. All but one of the transcriptions were done by organist Conte, who knows exactly what the instrument can and cannot do. (The recent restoration is only 75% completed, but everything working now sounds fabulous.) Wanamaker's criteria for the organ included a wide dynamic range as well as frequency extension to accurately re-create the sound of a full symphony - this is truly an audiophile pipe organ if there ever was one! Great fun all round.

There is a fine-print Warning similar to those on some Telarc CDs. It points out that no low frequency limiting at all was done in order to present on the disc the full low frequency information from the many 32 ft. pipes of the organ. In this case one would be wise to heed their warning and test one's woofers and subs at extremely low levels to begin with. I had a normal level setting but had not yet installed the 25 Hz high-pass filter I normally use in line with my subwoofers to prevent oscillations when using my turntable. At the end of the Wagner suite, with the music for the most part ended, my two massive Celestion subs shook so strongly they nearly walked across the room in spite of the spikes into the floor. The four opposed drivers violently fluttered like birds' wings. I rushed to lower the level before disaster. I believe this is Dorian's first HDCD disc; it sets new standards in the fidelity that can be squeezed out of the standard 44.1 sampling rate when all the technical stops are pulled out. (It's also 24-bit and part of the label's super-fi xCD series - not to be confused with xrcd.)

- John Sunier

HANDEL: Coronation Anthems - Zadok the Priest, Let They Hand Be Strengthened, The King Shall Rejoice, My Heart is Inditing, Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne - soloists/Choir of King's College, Cambridge/Academy of Ancient Music/Stephen Cleobury - EMI Classics 57140:

The four anthems were commissioned for the coronation of George II and Caroline in 1727 and bring us Handel's mega-pomp and circumstance with stirring melodies and plenty of trumpets and drums. Zadok the Priest, which accompanied the anointing of the King, may be one of the composer's most thrilling choral creations. The Ode was one of many created by composers for the king or queen twice each year. The soprano, countertenor and bass soloists are first rate, as are the overall sonics. Still, since it was recorded in the reverberant space of the King's College Chapel, it cries out for multichannel reproduction using either of the new hi-res formats.

- John Sunier

Bantock-a-rama...

SIR GRANVILLE BANTOCK: Thalaba the Destroyer, The Songs of Songs Prelude, Processional, Caristiona, Prelude & Camel Caravan from "Omar Khayyam" - Royal Philharmonic orch./Vernon Handley - Hyperion CDA67250:

The culture of the mysterious and exotic East was a major interest of many composers and authors in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Bantock, who lived until l946, was also an admirer of Tchaikovsky and found the Russian's symphonic language perfect for communicating the detailed program music he created in his own six orchestral tone poems. The story of Thalaba comes from a poem based on Arabic sources. The hero Thalaba overcomes all sorts of challenges and obstacles in a sort of fairytale Eastern setting. The plot closely follows the dozen short movements of the work. The two lovely selections from Bantock's opera on Omar Khayyam reminded me of Delius' opera Hassan, especially the wordless choral portions. We have conductor Handley to thank for these enchanting works - he has already recorded four previous CDs of the music of Bantock in an effort to familiarize the public with more than just his Pagan Symphony.

- John Sunier

BANTOCK: Old English Suite, Russian Scenes, Hebridean Symphony - Czecho-Slovak State Philharmonic, Kosice/Adrian Leaper - Naxos 8555473:

There is no specific program tied to Bantock's powerful Hebridean Symphony, but the general brooding feeling of Nordic legend and saga may be appreciated by those familiar with other music of that area. The Sibelius influence is strong here and there are plenty of strong melodies which appear to come from folk music sources but are probably original with the composer. An important symphony that bears repeated listening. The other two works here are quite different. The five movements of the English Suite orchestrate famous pieces by Elizabethan composers such as John Bull's The King's Hunt and Byrd's Sellinger's Round. The five energetic Russian Scenes survey four different Slavic dance forms after a short introduction: Mazurka, Polka, Valse and Cossack Dance.

- John Sunier

GOMBERT: Magnificats 1-4--Tallis Scholars--Gimell 037:

Nicolas Gombert (c1495-c1560) is somewhat unfairly regarded as among the lesser Flemish composers of the Renaissance; while his music doesn't exhibit the melodic flow of his teacher Josquin, it's decidedly original and imaginative. He used imitation convincingly, with each motif taken up by each of the voices in turn--often up to five or six or even eight--with flavorful dissonant harmonies. His eight Magnificats (the first four are here, and the others are forthcoming) are a kind of late summation of his work. They all follow the same pattern--a cycle of motets, each in one of the church modes, beginning and ending with a plainsong antiphon--and they are dense in texture, expressive, and quite lovely. The Tallis Scholars, directed by Peter Phillips, are among the most knowledgeable and skillful groups devoted to music of this period and their performances are beautiful. An hour of this music, pretty much the same throughout, may seem like a specialized taste, but the chaste and noble naivete of this kind of material has its devoted adherents, and they and general listeners as well will find this release very rewarding.

--Alex Morin

KIRI: Arias and songs--Kiri Te Kanawa, sop.--EMI 7243 557231:

Kiri Te Kanawa is remembered these days for her rendition of a Handel aria ("Let the bright seraphim" from Samson) at the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana in 1981, but she's been around long enough now for us to have a fair idea of the nature and range of her talent. She has a glamorous stage presence, and this coupled with a lovely voice has made her very appealing in lyrical roles in London and New York. She doesn't have great dramatic force and she's not much of a recitalist, but the freshness, warmth, and simplicity of her singing are memorable. The selections on this disc, recorded between the mid 1980s and 1990s, give a clear picture of her skills, starting with the Handel aria and the Mozart aria that marked her successful Covent Garden debut ("Dove sono" from Marriage of Figaro), going on to other opera arias, and ending with a number of popular ballads. Her style is somewhat too operatic and formal for the last, but she obviously enjoys them and puts them across effectively. Te Kanawa's voice is firmly centered, round, and full, and there is much vocal beauty to be found here.

--Alex Morin

DVORAK: Symphony No. 9, Sonatina in G for Violin & Piano, Fanfare for the 1891 Prague Exposition, Humoresque in G Flat Major, Deep River - Josef Suk, violin/Lincoln Mayorga, piano/Dvorak Festival Orch. Of New York/Steven Richman - Music & Arts CD 1078:

The live concert recorded here was held in New York City on September 13, l997 at the dedication of a bronze statue of Dvorak across the street from the site where the composer had lived from l892 to 1895. Dvorak Day, as it was deemed, featured many observations and the presence of many dignitaries. The famous Czech violinist Josef Suk appeared to perform the Humoresque which was composed while Dvorak resided at that location. Suk is the great-grandson of the composer. Another Dvorak connection is in the symphonic arrangement of the spiritual Deep River. It is by Harry Burleigh, an African-American student of Dvorak's who pioneered arrangements of spirituals that made them popular concert fare. Of course it would be a great omission to not feature the composer's New World Symphony on such a program, and it is the major work here. Richman imbues the work with a fresh slant, pointing up subtle details that free the work of its hoary chestnutty reputation. Finally, if the cover art looks exactly like that of many Columbia Records albums of the early LP era, that's because it is by the "inventor" of LP album jacket design, who did over 2000 classic covers.

- John Sunier

Rendezvous and Dreams - MURADIAN: Concerto, Op. 25; KOSINS: Rendezvous and Dreams; BIGGS: Dance Suite; LA TRAILLE: Quintet - Peter Christ, oboe & The Crystal Chamber Soloists - Crystal Records CD723:

A delightful package of four works featuring the artistry of oboe virtuoso Christ. The first and last pit the instrument against a string quartet, the title piece is a Romance for oboe and piano, and the Dance Suite is scored for oboe, violin, viola and cello. All four pieces are beautifully melodic and accessible yet contemporary-sounding, and some of them were written especially for Christ. Composer Biggs states he fell in love with the sound combination of oboe and string quartet hearing Britten's Phantasy Quartet for oboe and string trio. It does proves a splendid mix in the two works for that instrumentation. Biggs' four dances are tango, waltz, basse danse and Grecian dance, and in Kosin's Romance used for the CD's title, one gets a "Tango of the White Butterflies."

- John Sunier

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