Pt. 1 of 2 
 July-August 2002
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VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: The Lake in the Mountains; Six Studies in English Folksong; Phantasy Quintet; Violin Sonata in A minor; String Quartet No. 2 in A minor - The Nash Ensemble: Ian Brown, piano; Marianne Thorsen, violin; Elizabeth Wexler, violin; Lawrence Power, viola; Louise Williams, viola; Paul Watkins, cello - Hyperion CDA 67313:

Ralph Vaughan Williams is most well known for his orchestral and choral works; his symphonies, whether alternatingly pastoral or bombastic, and the occasional choral work (Dona Nobis Pacem, Mass in G minor) are most often what one finds on the program. Greatly overshadowed by all of this is his body of chamber music; very little exists in recorded form, and it's rarely performed. That said, this disc is a revelation, managing to seem both fresh and familiar at the same time.

The works span Vaughan Williams' career, and although they all have an unmistakable common character, they also reflect influences of the various musical periods they pass through. The Phantasy Quintet, composed in 1912, is overtly impressionistic and echoes contemporary chamber works by Ravel and Debussy. Other works echo themes that appear his symphonies; the String Quartet No. 2, which was composed between his 5th and 6th symphonies, and the Violin Sonata (VW's last major instrumental composition) both offer the diverse mood shifts that are the hallmark of his compositional style.

The recording is typical Hyperion, with all instruments perfectly placed in the soundstage, incredible dynamics and warmth of tone, with absolutely splendid playing throughout provided by the Nash Ensemble. A must-have for any lover of Vaughan Williams.

-- Tom Gibbs

Alexandre Tharaud, p. plays Rameau = RAMEAU: Nouvelles Suites de pieces de Clavecin; DEBUSSY: Hommage a Rameau - Harmonia Mundi HMC 901754:

Jean-Philippe Rameau was, in his day (early 1700's), a well-known organist and composer, mostly consisting of harpsichord works and several well-received operas. Today, his music is not exactly at the top of the classical charts. With the relatively recent decline in the retail availability of classical music, and the sparcity of recordings of this repertory, this music is increasingly difficult to find.

About 15 years ago I came across a Bob James (the jazz musician) recording of these works, which offered entertaining but heavily processed versions played on synthesizer. I was immediately hooked, and started looking for a more traditional recording. I've pretty much always went with the Glenn Gould train of thought, and started looking for a recording of this music on piano. Nada. There are several harpsichord versions available, but try finding one in a record store! This is the first version for piano I've ever found, and it makes the 15-plus year wait worth every minute.

Alexandre Tharaud is a talented, virtuosic musician who plays these pieces with flawless technique, and his choices of tempo suit the music perfectly. The recorded sound is excellent for Redbook CD; the piano is well-placed with superb tone. I'll definitely be on the lookout for other recordings by this young man. Thank goodness for online music stores!

-- Tom Gibbs

FAURE: Requiem, Opus 48; FRANCK: Symphony in D minor - Soloists/La Chapelle Royale/Collegium Vocale Gent/Champs Elysees Orch./Philippe Herreweghe, conductor - Harmonia Mundi HMC 901771:

Gabriel Faure's Requiem is traditionally performed in an intimate setting with sparse accompaniment. Here, we have a revised version (1901) for full orchestra and organ, commissioned to be performed in large concert halls. In its original performance setting (a church), an organ would usually be on hand, but they typically were not in most concert halls. Faure opted to include a harmonium (a very loud one) in the revised orchestration, and it works here to great effect.

Despite being the "full orchestra" version, everything retains a chamber feel in its presentation. The voices are powerful with lots of presence, and are spread effectively across the soundstage. Herreweghe, whose recordings all are universally heaped with praise, once again delivers the goods. He is without a doubt at the pinnacle of European choral conductors. The Franck symphony is given a sympathetic, very Gallic performance, and is a perfect companion to the Requiem. [Ed.: Personally I thought it highly unusual to say the least. They are both French composers but that's about the only connection.]

Another great recording that belongs in everyone's collection. If you can only pick one Faure Requiem, this might be the one to have. Herreweghe's older recordings are all being re-reissued by Harmonia Mundi at mid-price -- grab them while you can!

-- Tom Gibbs

ARIAS FOR FARINELLI -- Vivica Genaux, mezzo-sop/René Jacobs, dir/Academie für Alte Musik Berlin--Harmonia Mundi 901778:

Farinelli (1705-82, born Carlo Broschi} was among the leading Italian castrati, taking the heroic roles in many of Handel's Italian operas in London but leaving the stage in 1737 to spend the rest of his life in Madrid singing exclusively for the kings of Spain. He was recently made famous by a rather lurid movie about him. Nobody knows what the castrati sounded like. Contemporary observers tell us that Farinelli was a large, handsome man with an imposing stage presence and a big, beautiful, soprano voice, pure intonation over a very wide range, extraordinary breath control, adept in coloratura, and with effective dramatic skills. He certainly didn't sound like the countertenors who often take these roles today; their voice quality and timbre is quite different. A strong mezzo-soprano like Marilyn Horne probably comes closer to the mark.

That's what we get here. In the 11 selections on this disc the American mezzo Vivica Genaux avoids the familiar Handel staples, offering us instead arias from operas by less well-known Baroque composers--Porpora (Farinelli's teacher), Galuppi, Giacomelli and Hasse. They're all typically florid coloratura extravagances in conventional da capo form. Genaux has a good voice, not a great one, lacking Horne's vivid brilliance. It's a big voice, and spite of some breathiness and occasional inaccuracies of intonation, she produces full and well-rounded tones and makes about as much effort at characterization as this very formal music allows. Her coloratura is adequately agile, but it doesn't come easily. Her voice has a curious weightiness and often sounds as if she's pushing it around like a physical object; it goes where it's supposed to but doesn't get there naturally. The ornamentation by Jacobs is idiomatic and adds to the total effect, and his skillful period instrument band plays very well. 77 minutes of this kind of music can become wearing, but it's interesting and unusual and Genaux and Jacobs do it well enough to make it worthwhile.

--Alex Morin

BYRD: The Three Masses--Paul Hillier, dir/ProArte Singers--Harmonia Mundi 908289:

William Byrd (1543-1623), was a pupil of Tallis and together they were the greatest English composers before Purcell. He was a recusant--a Catholic making his way in a Protestant world--and these masses reflect his deep religious faith. Published between 1793 and 1795, they are for three, four, and five voices, and are both terse and subtle, much in the style of Taverner. Hillier and his well-balanced and well-blended choir are experts in this kind of music and provide superb performances. Three masses in a row may be a lot for some to take, but they're worth the effort.

--Alex Morin

MOZART: Opera arias--Sandrine Piau, sop/Gottfried von der Goltz, cond/Freiburger Barockorchester--Naive E 8877:

Sandrine Piau is fast becoming one of my favorite singers. I've enjoyed her part in several Handel operas, and here she proves herself to be an expert Mozartean as well. There are a few staples on this disc, including an exceptionally tender "Ach, ich fühl's" from The Magic Flute, but most of what she gives us is less familiar arias from less familiar operas. Her cool, clear, accurate voice, including a fine coloratura as needed, is sensitive, elegant, and very expressive throughout the recital. Von der Goltz and his Freiburg band provide expert accompaniment. This release is a constant delight!

--Alex Morin

ROPARTZ: Le Miracle de Saint Nicolas; Psaume 136; Dimanche; Nocturne; Le Vêpres sonnent--Christian Papis, tenor/Didier Henry, bar/Vincent Le Texier, bar/Michel Piquemal, cond/Orchestre Symphonique et Lyrique de Nancy/Choeur Régionale Vittoria d'Ile de France--Naxos 8.555656:

Joseph-Guy Ropartz (1854-1955) studied with Massenet and Franck (echoes of the latter are heard throughout his work), taught in Nancy and Strasbourg, and then returned to his native Brittany to spend his time in composition. He was prolific in a variety of genres, but remained outside the musical mainstream and is only now beginning to be recognized as a composer of some significance. He was proud of his Breton origins and some hear in his work a vein of Celtic fantasy. What I hear in the pieces on this disc is a deeply religious man whose devotional sincerity is apparent in every bar, with luminous harmonies and a steady flow of grave and beautiful ideas. The most interesting piece here is The Miracle of St. Nicolas, which is heroic in nature, and as song by the excellent soloists, very compelling. Piquemal does a good job leading his chorus and orchestra. Good sound, good notes, and texts are provided. An interesting and pleasing collection of unfamiliar music.

--Alex Morin

JOMMELLI: Don Trastullo--Roberto Invernizzi, sop/Rosario Totaro, tenor/Giuseppe Naviglio, bass/Antonio Florio, dir/Cappella de'Turchini--Opus 111 30280:

Niccolò Jommelli (1714-74) is almost forgotten, but he was an important figure in the group of Neapolitan composers who were seeking to reform singer-dominated opera seria. New Grove describes "his greatest achievements as a combination of German complexity, French decorative elements, and Italian brio, welded together by an extraordinary gift for dramatic effectiveness". Maybe so, but you won't find much of that here. This is a one-act, three-character comic "intermezzo", like Pergolesi's better-known La Serva Padrona, and typical of the commedia del'arte tradition: a middle-class woman tries to swindle a nobleman to get the money to marry her lover. It doesn't contain any memorable arias; most of it is in accompanied recitatif, but that's made palatable by Jommelli's skillful orchestration, and the whole thing moves along cheerfully under Antonio Florio's direction, The singers aren't great but they're good enough to carry it off; Inverinizzi's soprano is rather light, but she and the other two principals do an effective job of characterization. Good sound, interesting notes, and text. Not great music by any means, but enjoyable.

--Alex Morin

Angela Gheorghiu Live = Arias and songs--Angela Gheorghiu, sop/Ion Marin, cond/Royal Opera House Orchestra--EMI 557264:

Gheorghiu is among our most prominent lyric sopranos. I haven't been greatly taken by her opera recordings, but this London recital in 2001 is very impressive. I haven't seen her live, but she's attractive, and her voice is accurate and sumptuous, with a nice tight vibrato, and she uses it with intelligence and expressivity. The 12 selections on this disc range from Handel (a lovely rendition of "Lascia ch'io pianga" from Rinaldo) to "I could have danced all night" from My Fair Lady. In between come some standards (e.g., a rapturous "Un bel di vedremo" from Madama Butterfly) and some less well known (e.g., Brediceanu's charming "Câte flor pe deal in sus"). Few of them have much drama; mostly they are flowing and lyrical, giving her an opportunity to display her exceptionally smooth legato. Marin and the Royal Opera House Orchestra provide sensitive support. Good sound and very good singing make it easy to recommend this disc.

--Alex Morin

Olga Makarina, soprano - Italian Opera Arias--Romeo 7217:

Olga Makarina is an attractive blonde, photographed provocatively for the booklet cover; I suspect more classical music buyers are irritated than attracted by this kind of thing, but what do I know about marketing strategies? Don't be put off by it, however, because she has an exceptionally beautiful voice. Born and trained in Russia, she made her debut in St. Petersburg in 1997 and at the Met last year, where she sang some of the major lyric soprano roles. That's what we get on this disc--10 familiar arias from familiar operas by Bellini, Donizetti, Puccini, and Verdi. Her voice is big, strong, and accurate, with pure, rounded tones from top to bottom, especially in the middle register. She makes little attempt at characterization or expressiveness, but the beautiful sounds she produces go a long way to make up for that--for instance, in lovely accounts of "Qui la voce" from Bellini's I Puritani and the Willow Song and Ave Maria from Verdi's Othello. If she can learn to bring passion and expressiveness to her interpretations, she'll be quite something; as it is, she's a great pleasure to hear.

--Alex Morin

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