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CLASSICAL CDs - March/April/2001
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Constant Lambert / Romantic Orchestral MusicWilliam Henry Fry / BrucknerBach Suites for Solo CelloVenezia / Cuban Piano Classics
SchnittkeBach Mass in B MinorLe Grand MacabreHandel Alcina
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Bach Edition

Bach Complete Works
BACH: Complete works of Bach in 140 volumes (172 discs). Helmut Rilling, Bach-Collegium Stuttgart, et al. - Edition Bachakademie set, Hanssler.

Buy this set and you will be knee-deep in Bach -- literally. The carton containing the CDs is so huge you'll have trouble lifting it. But opening it is exhilarating and overwhelming. There are treasures within for the most fanatic aficionados.

Don't be wary about investing $1700 in the talents of one conductor. Helmut Rilling is a seasoned Bach conductor. Not a proponent of the period instrument movement, he adopts a spirited modern approach. His orchestral pace is swift, his performers creative. In the harpsichord concertos, expertly performed by Robert Levin, Rilling's tempo is delicious-he treats rests more like notes than pauses.

The performances range from the extraordinary to the acceptable with very few clunkers. Bach's resplendent choral works--the St. Matthew and St. John Passions, the Christmas Oratorio, and the Mass in B Minor -- shake the room with baroque jubilance and anguish. Rilling applies the master's glorious counterpoint and polyphonic choral movements with emotive skill. His St. John Passion contains the alternate versions for five sections. He infuses the eight volumes of the Bach chorale books with a refreshing humanism, unclogged by the usual solemnity. Unfortunately, all of them have the same boilerplate program notes. Other program notes in the series are more comprehensive.

Hanssler has organized this collection imaginatively. For example, rather than group the solo organ works by one category, it does so by theme (e.g., New Ideas in Weimar; Influences of Cantata, Concerto, and Chamber). For the most part, this scheme works well. On the Influences of Bohn and Buxtehude disc, the organ pieces are fantastically inventive, particularly BWV 575. Late Works from the Leipzig Period is weighted too heavily toward placid meditative works. The Edition Bachakademie also includes unauthenticated and spurious works, perhaps one reason why it is nineteen CDs longer than the competition, Teldec's Bach 2000.

There are other treasures: the carefully modulated counterpoint of the motets, Robert Levin's sagely explained instrumental choices for the Well Tempered Clavier, the aggressive and callow Harpsichord Music of the Young J.S. Bach.

Regarding period instruments, the set is inconsistent. The violoncello piccolo is used in Cantata BWV 6, but not in the sixth Cello Suite No. 6, for which the piece was scored. Speaking of the Cello Suites, cellist Boris Pergamenschikow plays them well, exploiting the dusky lower registers, although his imitation sequences in the Cello Suite No. 6 lack Rostropovich's keen individuation.

Rilling's performances of Bach's more than 200 cantatas make this set worth owning. Some are decades old, but in good shape, such as Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau's tender and forceful "Ich Habe Genug." Although contralto Helen Watts is the victim of shoddy miking in BWV 83 and 86, she recovers in the duets of BWV 134.

The set comes with an attractive coffee table book about Bach's life and a 255-page booklet with two helpful indexes to the works. Buy it so that when asked if you own "Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern," you can reply "Which one? BWV 739 or BWV 764?"

-Peter Bates


Schnittke
Schnittke: Music for Violin and Piano. Joanna Kurkowicz, violin; Sergey Schepkin, piano. BRIDGE 9104:

Until I'd heard this disc, I hadn't been playing my Schnittke works for violin and piano very much. My versions seem too edgy and too thin, almost one-dimensional. Schnittke works can be difficult to perform, and in some cases, virtually impenetrable to audiences. But these fiery works have warmth and humor. In this remarkable disc, Joanna Kurkowicz and Sergey Schepkin find both. Their rendition of the twelve-tone Violin Sonata No. 1 veers from sardonic to tender, capped by bizarre rhumba rhythms in IV. These two musicians perform as if joined at the hip. Unlike Luba Edlina's and Rostislaw Subinsky's over-refined version (CHAN 8343), Kurkowicz and Schepkin gleefully navigate the choppy waves of this piece.

Kurkowicz's interpretation of Schnittke's A Paganini is a wondrous foray into solo virtuoso technique. Violinist Oleh Krysa may have commissioned the work (BIS CD-697), but his texture is sparse. He performs hastily, as if afraid Paganini's ghost is spying on him. Kurkowicz is fearless. She doesn't feel compelled to rush through the work. At 13:50, her version is almost three minutes slower than Krysa's and because of that, the piece breathes easily between the prestissimo flights of fancy.

Like most of Schnittke's works, the Sonata No. 2 (wryly subtitled "Quasi una sonata") is a struggle between dissonance and consonance. Unusual techniques abound but these performers careen through the tone clusters and microtonal brambles like dancers through dense forests. Like the photo on the booklet's cover, their interpretative light streams through the bars. In one passage, Kurkowicz's violin shimmies up and down the scale, producing a seductive squeal. At other moments, she finds intriguing ways to decode Schnittke's erratic polystylism; for example, she uses wit when modulating those cranky tempo shifts. Schepkin is the ideal accompanist, expertly handling the quirky piano solo halfway through the piece and slamming his forte chords with the right degree of surprise. Prelude in Memoriam Dmitri Shostakovich is a prickly tribute. Kurkowicz plays it in duo with herself on tape in a beguiling blend of legato and pizzicato.

-Peter Bates


Le Grand Macabre
LIGETI: Le Grand Macabre - Philharmonia Orchestra, Esa-Pekka Salonen. Sibylle Ehlert, Laura Claycomb, Charlotte Hellekant, Jard van Nes. Sony S2K 62312:
With this work avant-guarde composer György Ligeti presents us with "opera." (He put quotes around the word himself.) Ornery to the core, Le Grand Macabre uses musical instruments to simulate non-musical effects. Before its scenes there are two car horn preludes and a doorbell prelude. These frisky and brief introductions are amusing in the same way as Marcel Duchamps' famous found urinal sculpture is. In fact, the entire plot is retro-Dada: Piet the Pot, a tipsy professional wine-taster, is abducted by Nekrotzar, the Great Macabre, a personification of death. We meet court astrologers who engage in S&M and a confused Prince Go-Go, who reigns in Breughelland, a place where the two political parties have no differences at all. (Sound familiar?) This anti-music is cacophonous and occasionally clever, such as a concluding Passacaglia done in mock classical style. Squawking sprechtstimme inflates the non-musical segments with a volume that lacks substance. Inevitably, the work's constant anarchic energy wears thin. There is just too much grunting, squealing, and flat-out satire. Thirty five years ago I wrote about listening to a failed "innovative" piece: "Sometimes in the melting day/There are eons of two hours to endure."

-Peter Bates


Another Bach set, of a bit more modest size than the Bach Akademie set above =

Bach Mass in B Minor
BACH: Mass in B Minor; Magnificat; Cantata BWV 80 (A mighty fortress is our God) - Soloists/La Chapelle Royale/Collegium Vocale/Philippe Herreweghe - Harmonia mundi (2 CDs plus 3rd cross-platform CD-ROM) HMX 2908110.12:

This boxed set pairs a magnificent performance of Bach's greatest piece of liturgical music with "The Bach Companion" - a lavish CD-ROM disc for either PC or Mac use which explores the universe of J.S. Bach. First, the performance on the two standard CDs is uniformly excellent, informed by the latest musicological findings though eschewing the Baroque viols. The ten soloists are first rate, always on pitch, and the sonic presentation of them against the choirs is well balanced, with a good feeling of the acoustics of the church in Arles were it was recorded. Many disparate musical elements come together in the Mass, including Catholic liturgy and Lutheran chorales, lovely expressive arias for one and two vocalists, dramatic choruses that often sound as if they came from an oratorio, and rich orchestral passages that could fit right into Bach's Orchestral Suites.

The CD-ROM also brings together many disparate streams of information about Bach's life and music, allowing the user to follow those that most interest him or her. It is suggested that the computer's analog audio out be fed via patch cable to the input of the stereo system to realize the excellent fidelity of the many music examples on the disc. The Home Page of the disc has four sub-sections: Tributes to Bach by great Bach performers, an almanac that let's you see what Bach was doing on a particular day in Leipzig, what his contemporaries said about him - including those with sharpened tongues, and a snapshot of Bach's day to day routine. The next page of the CD-ROM brings to life the history and geography of Europe of the time, as well as exploring the Baroque period in music generally. Sections are The European Context, Several Baroques?, Bach's Germany, and Keywords in Baroque music. Some of these are illustrated with portraits and snippets of associated music. In The Book of Chronicles section the complex Bach family tree of musicians is delineated, as well as a resume of the time Bach spent in various places on the map and what his duties were at each one. The chapter entitled A Whole World! attempts to make some sense of the 1126 numbers of Bach's catalogued works. Excerpts of many of them are also heard.

The Auditorium is an in-depth exploration of 20 of the composer's most famous works. There is an abundance of different links and tabs to be accessed in learning some of the secrets of Bach's compositional style. Play Bach is not Jacques Loussier's jazzed-up music but a series of computer games based on information in the CD-ROM. One has the users trying to guess which of several samples is the work by Bach and which are by others. A Bach Quiz comes in three different levels of difficulty, and Find the Pair asks the user to re-assemble several identical musical clips that have been randomly placed in a listening table. A true interactive device is called The Composing Machine. The intention of this multimedia device is to give the ordinary person with no experience in musical composition a feeling for the fundamentals of Bach's music by trying to solve some musical puzzles. You create counterpoint by selecting various passages that are provided both visually and aurally, moving them around and choosing where to drop them into sync with the already existing voice on the musical staff. Then you can listen back to your creation in Counterpoint 101. It looks as though one could spend days exploring this valuable music encyclopedia on CD-ROM.

- John Sunier


A pair of cello collections next, starting with more Bach =

Bach Suites for Solo Cello
BACH: The Suites for Solo Cello - Daniel Müller-Schott, cello - Glissando 779 024-2 (2 Cds):

Here again Bach has built an over-riding musical richness into a work through the use of many different elements - primarily from dance music of his time. What is different is the data reduction from soloists, chorus and orchestra down to a single stringed instrument. Before this amazing set of six pieces, the only other composer known to have written music for unaccompanied cello was Domenico Gabrieli. Bach's dance movements are of course stylized but still buoyant with the original rhythms. The works are difficult to perform due to intricate passagework and double, triple and even quadruple stopping of the strings in some places. These lovely versions by Muller-Schott are not going to replace classic ones by Casals, Starker and Rostropovich but they offer a different, lighter, more flowing approach to the music. I was more closely reminded of the recent set of the suites by Yo Yo Ma.

- John Sunier

WORKS FOR CELLO AND PIANO - Alisa Weilerstein, cello; Vivian Hornik Weilerstein, piano - EMI Classics Debut series 5 73498 2:

Nineteen-year-old cellist Weilerstein gave her first public cello recital at age five. She is accompanied here by her pianist mother and she regularly tours with both parents as the Weilerstein Trio. Her program is varied and with less duplication of selections than some cello recitals. Nine composers are represented, and standouts musically were the opening Variations on One String on a Rossini Theme, by Paganini; Ginastera's Pampeana No. 2, Janacek's Fairy Tale, and Falla's Popular Spanish Suite. Of course in the middle of this we have Faure's After a Dream and St. Saens' The Swan. This young lady possesses a rich and deep tone and sensitive phrasing; I'm sure we'll hear more from her soon.

- John Sunier


Handel Alcina
HANDEL: Alcina--Renée Fleming, sop/Susan Graham, mezzo/Natalie Dessay, sop/Kathleen Kuhlmann, cont/Timothy Robinson, tenor/Laurent Naouri, bass/William Christie/Les Arts Florissants--Erato 8573-80233 (3 CDs)

Alcina was Handel's 30th opera; premiered in 1735, it was a great success, and then disappeared for over 200 years. It's a marvelous tale of love and magic, full of inspired imagination and color, allowing for striking dramatic effects and displaying the composer's profound understanding of human nature and behavior. This 1999 Paris production is superb in every way. Christie has assembled as good a cast as can be found nowadays; all of them are well-known Baroque specialists, they all have splendid voices, and under his expert direction, they sing idiomatically and offer vivid characterizations. If I were to single out one of them for special praise, it would be Kathleen Kuhlmann, whose easy and sumptuous contralto illuminates Bradamante's nobility at every point. But Susan Graham is just about as good as the hapless Ruggiero, and Renée Fleming is wonderful as the weary and troubled sorceress Alcina. Christie's leadership is brisk and knowledgeable, and his period orchestra makes agreeable sounds. Alcina is one of Handel's greatest operas, which means it is one of the greatest of all operas, and this release is a delight from beginning to end.

-Alex Morin


Here are some orchestral works that you almost certainly don't already have in your collection =

Constant Lambert / Romantic Orchestral Music
CONSTANT LAMBERT: Pomona Ballet, Romeo and Juliet Ballet, Overture to the Bird Actors - State Orchestra of Victoria/John Lanchbery - Chandos CHAN 9865:

Lambert has been rather ignored until recently, when he is getting more recordings and attention and taking his place as a leading British composer of the generation of Walton, Tippett and Berkeley. He created many ballet scores and two of them are presented here. Pomona's scenario is around the doings of various Greek goddesses and nymphs and mixes the neoclassicism of Stravinsky with Erik Satie as well as early English composers such as Purcell. The l925 Romeo and Juliet ballet brought the composer into conflict with impresario Diaghilev. Setting for the ballet is a classroom were the dancers are rehearsing scenes from Romeo and Juliet. Short tuneful dance movements make this much lighter in mood than Prokofiev's version. The Australian musical forces are excellent, as are Chandos clean and detailed sonics.

- John Sunier

ROMANTIC ORCHESTRAL MUSIC by Flemish Composers - PETER BENOIT: Suite from The Pacification of Ghent; MORTELMANS: Elegies I & II; LODEWIJK DE VOCHT: Cello Concerto in D Minor - Roel Dieltiens, cello/VRT Philharmonic Orch./Silveer Van den Broeck - Marco Polo 8.225100:

Marco Polo thoroughly lives up to its name exploring orchestral music such as this: three leading composers of the Flemish Romantic School. Benoit died in l901 but De Vocht lived until l977. Their aim was to create music in a specific Flemish style based on Flemish folksong and the language. The suite of five movements by Benoit, founder of the movement, is derived from his l876 musical drama on the victory in the Low Countries' struggle for independence from the control of Spain three centuries earlier. The short elegies by Lodewijk Mortelmans are both moving adagios. De Vocht cello concerto of l956 is structured traditionally, with many strongly lyrical passages and an overall joyful demeanor. This may be obscure music but it fully deserves to be explored and appreciated.

- John Sunier


William Henry Fry / Bruckner
WILLIAM HENRY FRY: Santa Claus Christmas Symphony; Niagara Symphony; Overture to Macbeth, The Breaking Heart - Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Tony Rowe - Naxos 5.559057:

Speaking of obscure, my music education completely missed this fellow - the first native-born American to ever compose for symphony orchestra as well as write an opera. He lived during the first half of the l9th century, was the first music critic for a major newspaper, and delivered a series of lectures on music history. Fry championed American music and labored to have Americans give it more support.

The Santa Claus Symphony is more than a curiosity. It's chock full of all sorts of early Romanticism, quotes of well-known tunes such as Adeste fideles and The Lord's Prayer, and was the first symphonic work anywhere to feature a saxophone - yet another Fry first! Extremely programmatic, the work comes with a play-by-play story, including St. Nick sliding down the chimney accompanied by glissandos in the flute section. Fry's most popular work was probably The Breaking Heart. It shows the strong bel canto operatic influences dear to the composer, and is brimming with melodrama, as audiences of the time appreciated. The Niagara Symphony is a widescreen spectacular American Respighi tone poem. Fry demands 11 tympani to convey the thundering falls. Don't miss this fascinating and fun CD in Naxos' American Classics series!

- John Sunier

BRUCKNER: Symphony No. 00 "Study Symphony:" Alternate Finale to Symphony No. 4 - Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Georg Tintner - Naxos 8.554432:

Anton Bruckner was not much of a self-promoter. His self-doubt is partly responsible for the fact that though he is known for nine numbered symphonies there are two earlier ones (never played in his lifetime) which have been almost ignored. It turns out they are much more than the "student work" that Bruckner felt them to be, and they show many of the identifying characteristics of the composer's later work. Mendelssohn and Schumann are strong influences on the style of this symphony, which Bruckner must not have thought worthless because he didn't destroy the score as he had other rejected works. The orchestration is especially mature and there are some lovely melodies. Bruckner's "building stone" musical architecture of repetition hasn't been established as yet but that doesn't make the work any less listenable. There aren't many recordings of this oddball symphony, so this fine version at a fine price is worthy of consideration.

- John Sunier


Venezia / Cuban Piano Classics
Florian Uhlig, piano - Venezia - Black Box BBM1054:

This new label continues to impress with releases that are just a bit difference from the norm. Young German pianist Uhlig as given complete freedom to create his superbly imaginative recital program, and in the booklet notes he explains the hows and whys of it. Chopin's famous Barcarolle was the starting point. He wanted to assemble a program of short works associated with the songs of gondoliers and the barcarolle form in general. The 13-selection program opens with a paraphrase of The Carnival of Venice, and includes an original piece by Uhlig himself: Ravi Shankar - Venezia. Barcarolles by Faure and Alkan are included and in about the center of the concert, Chopin's Barcarolle. Uhlig chose short pieces by early composers Marcello and Galuppi that seems to have a rocking sort of rhythm as in barcarolles. Franz Liszt was also hung up on Venice in general and gondolas in particular, and three of this piano works are featured in this thoughtful and intriguing piano program. (La Lugubre Gondola II is one; an announcer once translated this as "the lousy gondolier.")

- John Sunier

Juana Zayas - A Treasury of Cuban Piano Classics - Music & Arts CD 1069:

With all the hoopla over the re-discovery of Cuban jazz and folk music, why shouldn't Cuban concert music be also benefitting? BIS has had a fine series of Lecuona piano music CDs that have again popularized this composer who once was very big in the U.S. This new collection comes from a Cuban-American pianist who has had two acclaimed Chopin CDs out on this same label. Lecuona gets seven of the pieces on this 50-track album, but the other composers will be new to nearly everyone. Ignacio Cervantes' 36 Cuban Dances - some as short as 39 seconds - is a delight. Most are very rhythmic and obviously influenced by Cuban folk melodies. The titles are almost as much fun as the music: Don't Touch Me, Pecking Gossip, Pst!, Dance No More. The other two composers represented are Caturia and Hernandez. None of the pieces are of the length or nature of delving into much musical development, but all elicit a joyful nostalgia for a way of life long past.

- John Sunier


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