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CLASSICAL CDs   Pt. 1 - May 2001

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BACH: Easter Oratorio; Magnificat in D--Kimberly McCord, sop/Julia Gooding, sop/Robin Blaze, alto/Paul Agnew, tenor/Neal Davies, bass/Paul McCreesh, cond/Gabrieli Players--Archiv 289 469531:

Though no longer than some of the other major cantatas, the Easter Oratorio, beginning "Kommt, eilet und laufet", is generally placed among Bach's "major" sacred works. It has no Evangelist delivering Gospel texts but is a quasi-dramatic representation of the discovery of the empty tomb by four of Jesus's followers (a convenient vocal quartet). The short episodes of the Magnificat, in the D major version sung here, use constantly changing vocal forces and orchestration. Both pieces are full of imaginative scene painting and gorgeous arias and choruses.

The performances on this disc are superb in every respect. McCreesh accepts our current understanding of Bach's performance practice by using the soloists as the chorus, one to a part, with his 22-member Gabrieli Players and a Baroque German church organ providing splendid support, all recorded in perfectly balanced sound. The singers are experienced Baroque specialists and they sing beautifully, with accurate intonation, clear diction, and idiomatic and expressive phrasing. McCreesh's direction, as always, is crisp and authoritative, and his period-instrument orchestral group provides rich, warm accompaniments. There are other good recordings of this glorious music, for instance from Herreweghe (Harmonia Mundi), but this one stands head and shoulders above the rest and should not be missed.

- Alex Morin


MACDOWELL: Piano Concertos 1 & 2; Witches Dance; Romance for Cello and Orchestra. Stephen Prutsman, Piano; Aisling Drury Byrne, Cello. National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland, conducted by Arthur Fagen. Naxos 8.559049:

MACDOWELL: Suites Nos. 1 & 2; Hamlet and Ophelia. Ulster Orchestra conducted by Takuo Yuasa. Naxos 8.559075:

The American composer Edward MacDowell (1860-1908) wrote "The high mission of music .. is neither to be an agent for expressing material things; nor to utter pretty sounds to amuse the ear; nor a sensuous excitant to fire the blood; nor a sedative to lull the senses. It is a language, but a language of the intangible, a kind of soul-language.Music is the stuff dreams are made of." Influenced by neo European Romanticism (he lived in Europe from 1876-1888), raised in an upper class American family, a lover of poetry and nature, America's first well known composer wrote music that was influenced by Grieg, Liszt in his early compositional years but will be remembered for his piano miniatures and songs which thread a fine line between the sentimentality of American popular music and the superb melodic structure of a fine serious musician. He will also be remembered by many American composers (Copland, Harris and Sessions) who spent time composing at the MacDowell Colony, an artists retreat maintained by his wife on the Peterborough farm that the composer loved so dearly.

Both Piano Concertos were written during MacDowell's European period. They are neo romantic compositions in the best European sense. If you like the Grieg and Schumann piano concertos, you will like these exciting and tuneful works. The First Concerto was written in a period of just over two weeks in 1881, after he told his composition teacher, Joseph Joachim Raff, that he was working on a piano concerto. In the spring of 1882 he played the work for Franz Liszt in a two piano version. Liszt was so impressed he arranged for the work to be published and the premiere took place later that year in Zurich. It was a great success for the 22 year old composer and pianist. No wonder ­ it has everything one would expect in a romantic concerto. Virtuosic cadenzas, gorgeous melodies (the second movement Andante tranquillo), and a thrilling, finger busting finale. The Second Concerto opens with slow Larghetto that alternates dramatic, soulful questions with lighter, lyrical moments. It's much more serious and probing opening movement than its predecessor. A lighthearted scherzo follows the finale filled with achingly beautiful melodies and virtuosic flurries. Witches Dances, a showpiece for piano and orchestra and the plaintive Romance for Cello and Orchestra rounds out the disc.

The performances on this disc are of the highest level. Avery Fisher Career Grant award winner Steven Prutsman has the chops to meet every virtuosic challenge these two concertos offer ­ and they are considerable. But his technical ability is always at the service of the music as the cadenza in the first movement of the First Concerto clearly shows. The quieter, more melodic sections are played with the romantic ardor of someone who loves this music. The National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland under opera conductor Arthur Fagen matches Prutsman's performance, balancing drama with lyricism. Audiophiles can rejoice: this is one of Naxos' finest sonic representations: wide soundstage, great balance between piano and orchestra, and believable imaging and transparency. Get this record!

Both of MacDowell's Orchestra Suites were written in the 1890's, after he had returned from Europe. The First Suite draws inspiration from MacDowell's love of nature with titles that include "In a Haunted Forest," "Summer Idyll," and "Forest Spirits." The Second Suite is based on American Indian legends and folklore. It's ironic that the composer using music based on folklore, yet this most popular and effective work draws upon just such material. The "Love Song" of the second movement comes from a Kiowa love song and the well known "Dirge" emanates from a Kiowa chant of mourning. Both Suites are lovely works, brimming with fertile melodies, colorfully orchestrated but harmonically simple. The Ulster Orchestra under the direction of Takuo Yuasa plays adequately if not spectacularily but the recording doesn't match the excellence of the Concerto disc. A pleasant addition to Naxos' MacDowell series.

- Robert Moon


PROKOFIEV: Sonatas 1 for Violin and Piano in F Minor, Op.80; Sonata No. 2 for Violin and Piano in D, Op. 94a; Sonata for solo violin, Op.115. Evgueni Bushkov, violin; Stephen Prutsman, piano. Harmonia Mundi HMN 911656:

Prokofiev's two violin and piano sonatas were written in the late 1930's and early 1940's and were finished before the well known governmental crackdown on Soviet composers in 1948 that stifled music creativity in Russia. They come from the composers most creative period that include the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies and the opera War and Peace. Violinist David Oistrakh inspired and premiered the First and convinced Prokofiev to rearrange the Flute sonata for violin in the Second. The two had met in 1927 and become friends after a rather rocky beginning when the then 18 year old violinist was castigated for not playing the Scherzo from the first violin concerto the way the composer desired at a concert in honor of Prokofiev at the Odessa Conservatory.

The F minor sonata was started in 1938 but the composer didn't finish it until after the Second Sonata was completed in 1946. It is a work of serious gravity with a beautiful third movement andante and a rhymnically exciting finale. Bushkov's interpretation has real bite and a dark mysticism that searingly catches the atmosphere of the first movement that Prokofiev described to Oistrakh during rehearsals of the premiere "like the wind in a graveyard." His violin sings with a muted, restrained lyricism that is haunting in the serenely beautiful andante. The rhymically complex finale is performed with aplomb.

Although the Second Sonata begins with a serious eloquence, the prevailing mood of the work is uncharacteristically optimistic, especially considering it was composed in the middle of the darkest period of World War II. The Scherzo wittily bubbles along in a positively spring-like mood. Piano partner Stephen Prutsman is especially fine in sustaining the rhythmic tension that propels this movement. Bushkov's brilliance in the virtuosic Allegro con brio demonstrates why Oistrakh asked Prokofiev to transcribe this sonata for the violin.

Prokofiev was motivated to write The Sonata for solo violin upon hearing Bach's Third Partita for violin played by twenty violins at the Moscow Conservatory. Although the work can be played by many violins, Evgueni Bushkov makes a dazzling case for the solo version, replete with every virtuosic feature of violin pyrotechnics imaginable which the soloist navigates with ease.

Special mention is due pianist Stephen Prutsman who partners Bushkov with wit, dash and musical substance. The recording is very clear and beautifully balanced, with nary a glint of digital glare. This is a recording worth seeking out for its musical substance and flawless execution by two superb musicians.

- Robert Moon


THE VIVALDI ALBUM: Opera arias--Cecilia Bartoli, mezzo/Giovanni Antonini, cond/Il Giardino Armonico--Decca 466569:

Vivaldi is, of course, best known for his orchestral compositions, but he also had a great gift for vocal writing, sacred and secular. Much of it has been lost, including most of his operas, but what remains is more varied and displays every bit as much imagination and rather more personal feeling than his concertos. With the help of recordings, it's gradually becoming better known, but I think this is the first release devoted entirely to arias from the operas, certainly the first from a major artist; it offers thirteen selections, eleven from known operas and two from unknown sources. I find it hard to watch Bartoli's constant mugging on stage, and some of the same kind of over-emphasis appears in her singing, which, along with occasional coarseness and shrillness, makes her a little hard to hear. But she has a rich voice, provides vivid characterizations, easily deals with the demanding coloratura of many of the arias, and offers a nicely flowing line in lyrical passages. Il Giardino Armonico provides skillfully idiomatic accompaniments on period instruments, though the recorded balances seem to vary unpredictably within and between selections. Vivaldi's vocal works are a rich lode of largely unexplored music, and in spite of my complaints, the disc is a good introduction to some its treasures.

--Alex Morin


VERDI: Messe Solenne; Qui tollis; Tantum ergo in F; Laudate pueri; Tantum ergo in G; Pater noster; Ave Maria; Libera me -- Elisabetta Scano, sop/Cristina Gallardo-Domâs, sop/Juan Diego Flórez, tenor/Kenneth Tarver, tenor/Michele Pertusi, bass/Eldar Aliev, bass/Riccardo Chailly, cond/Giuseppe Verdi Symphony Orchestra Milan--Decca 467280:

Religious works were among Verdi's first and last compositions; orchestral settings of devotional scores sketched by his teacher in Busseto were followed by similar works while he was a student in Milan. The first five pieces listed above were all written before he was 20 and were rediscovered a few years ago by Verdi scholar Dino Rizzo in a Busseto library; this is their first recording. Their debt to Rossini and Bellini is clear, with the music bearing little relationship to the sacred texts. The Libera me was written in 1868 for an unperformed Requiem Mass for Rossini; it was later incorporated with an expanded solo part in the great Manzoni Requiem. The Pater noster and Ave Maria of 1880 are less operatic and more obviously religious in nature; the former was inspired by Palestrina and called for a chorus of 210 singers, while the latter uses a small string orchestra and soprano soloist in a remarkable exploration of harmonic dissonance, with a lovely line of melody. In these performances, the singers all have good, clear, expressive voices, and Chailly and his Milan orchestra provide excellent accompaniments, in very good sound. The release offers more than mere curiosity value; while not always top-drawer Verdi, it contains a good deal of striking and beautiful music and is well worth your attention.

- Alex Morin


PHILIP GLASS: The World Premiere Recording of Three Songs (Words by Leonard Cohen, Raymond Levesque, and Octavio Paz); "Vessels" from Koyaanisqatsi for choir, saxophone, and flute; Songs from Liquid Days (Lyrics by Laurie Anderson, David Byrne, Paul Simon, and Suzanne Vega; Arranged by Jeremy Marchant for choir, soloists, and orchestra)

Crouch End Festival Chorus/The National Sinfonia/Leader: Alan Brind/Conducted by David Temple

Silva Classics SILKD 6023:

This choral hodgepodge of a CD features the world premiere of "Three Songs," commissioned in 1986 for the 350th anniversary of Quebec; an excerpt from the score for the movie Koyaanisqatsi, one of Glass's most popular pieces; and Jeremy Marchant's choral arrangement of Songs from Liquid Days. Overall, this is a mixed bag that includes a pleasing assortment of Glass's hypnotic, meditative compositions. However, the music does not stand up to repeated listening. It grows progressively more monotonous, and the freshness of its initial impact gradually fades away, leaving a nonchalance in its wake.

"There Are Some Men," the first of the three songs, with lyrics by Leonard Cohen, may well be the most successful piece on this CD. It is ardently sung a capella by a seamless chorus, with a full and large sound that closely approximates the experience of listening to a live performance in a large hall. The next two songs, "Quand les hommes vivront d'amour [When men will live on love]" (lyrics by Raymond Lévesque) and "Pière de soleil [Father of the son]" (lyrics by Octavio Paz), are almost as appealing.

Listeners familiar with the score for Koyaanisqatsi will note the different instrumentation on this CD, which makes use of a flute and soprano and tenor saxophones. This excerpt is as haunting and beautiful as I remember it from the original film.

Songs from Liquid Days was first released in 1986 on CBS in a different version. Marchant has replaced some of the instruments with a chorus, and retained the flutes, strings, piano, organ, and percussion. He has also changed the order of the songs. The first song, "Changing Opinion" (with lyrics by Paul Simon), features an interesting combination of piano music played by Elizabeth Shepherd and the singing of Wills Morgan, a hauntingly beautiful tenor. Here classical and jazz meld in an unexpected way, and the song's meditative mood gives way to a rousing ending that is startling in its abruptness. "In Liquid Days" is a curious juxtaposition of lyricism with Glass's signature circular motifs. The flute's charming little curlicues are distant echoes of the forest bird in Siegfried. Richard Wagner's music is sometimes featured in performances along with Glass's, presumably because they are both thought to share mystical qualities. "Open the Kingdom," a song with religious connotations, with lyrics by David Byrne of the Talking Heads, sounds very much like a rock opera, particularly the Who's Tommy. Morgan's purity of sound and sincerity are appealing. "Freezing" (lyrics by Suzanne Vega) and "Forgetting" (lyrics by Laurie Anderson) are sung by the exotic-sounding Najma Akhtar, who has released five albums of her own in the genre of world music.

A minor flaw of this CD is that the cuts are too close together, making it difficult to tell when one song ends and another begins. The performers, however, are uniformly excellent. It is rare pleasure to hear such an accomplished chorus in such good sound.

- Dalia Geffen


MOZART: Il Sogno di Scipio--Malin Hartelius, sop/Lisa Larsson, sop/Christine Brandes, sop/Bruce Ford, tenor/Charles Workman, tenor/Jeremy Ovenden, tenor/Gottfried van der Goltz, cond/Freiburg Baroque Orchestra--Astrée E 8813 (2 Cds):

Mozart wrote Scipio's Dream in 1771 (at age 16) for the 50th anniversary of the ordination of the then Archbishop of Salzburg; when he died, it was rededicated to the incoming Archbishop, Mozart's nemesis Hieronimus Colloredo, and at least the Epilogue in his honor was presented at his inauguration in 1752. It then fell into oblivion until Leopold Hager offered a concert performance at the 1979 Salzburg Festival. It's based on a libretto by Metastasio that had already been set by six other composers, and it's more of an extended cantata than an opera, with no real plot: the Roman general Scipio dreams he is transported to the Elysian Fields where he's confronted by the competing claims of the goddesses of Fortune and Constancy; with the advice of his ancestors he chooses constancy, and the moral is spelled out in the Epilogue. The work proceeds through one long act with eleven arias and one chorus interspersed with recitativo secco (accompanied only by basso continuo), and there is no real dramatic tension or characterization. It's generally regarded as one of Mozart's lesser efforts, and it's clearly an immature work: the lengthy arias and recitatives can become tedious, there are no ensemble numbers, the small orchestra is reduced to the role of accompanist, and it has little of the musical richness that came later.

This excellent production comes from a concert performance at the Montreux Festival in 2000. Everyone involved--singers, conductor, orchestra members--is young, and their youth shows in the verve and enthusiasm with which they approach the work. Malin Hartelius (Constancy) has a lovely voice, rich and creamy even in the difficult coloratura passages, but Lisa Larsson's light voice (as Fortune) is rather squally. Bruce Ford, probably today's best Mozart and Rossini tenor, presents a forthright and noble Scipio, and the others are just about as effective. Goltz leads briskly, and his Freiburg band provides solid support. Despite its defects, this is still the work of a genius, contains felicities at every turn, and is valuable not only as a precursor but for its own enjoyable sake.

- Alex Morin


PAVAROTTI - Songs and arias--Luciano Pavarotti, tenor/Leone Magiera, piano--Decca 456350:

Pavarotti was never a subtle artist, and he has always had a tendency toward exhibitionism that was more in evidence as he aged, but he made up for it all by the winning charm of his personality and the sheer beauty of his voice. In recent years it has lost much of its sheen, become weaker at the top, and is more and more inclined to blare under pressure, but when he sings in the middle register where he is most comfortable, he can still produce effortless and remarkably beautiful sounds. This disc, recorded from recitals in 1997-99, offers 23 selections, seven of them opera arias and the rest songs (including nine by Tosti and five by Bellini). There is a fair amount of coarseness to be heard, but in lyrical songs like "Una furtiva lagrima" (from L'elisir d'amore) and Tosti's "Serenata", he offers great tenderness, warmth, and an even flow of lovely tones. You will get a better idea of Pavarotti's artistry from the recordings he made twenty years ago, but there is much to enjoy here.

- Alex Morin


VERDI: Jérusalem--Mariana Mescheriakova, sop/Marcello Giordani, tenor/Philippe Rouillon, bar/Roberto Scandiuzzi, bass/Fabio Luisi, cond/L'Orchestre de la Suisse Romande--Philips 462613 (3 Cds):

In the middle of the 19th century, Paris was attracting opera composers and performers from all over Europe by its openness to lavish, large-scale works, and Verdi followed Rossini and Donizetti in seeking fame and fortune there. For this purpose, he adapted his earlier I Lombardi, using a new libretto to shorten and rearrange the score for greater dramatic effect and adding the compulsory (and musically trivial) ballet to Act III. It had some success, but it failed when it was returned to Italy in an inept translation and has rarely been heard since. I Lombardi wasn't among Verdi's most distinguished operas to begin with, and Jérusalem wasn't an improvement; much of it is commonplace, with only a few memorable arias and its main interest lying in its many rich and exciting choruses. The cast for this performance includes no great voices, but the singers are all quite competent, providing vivid characterizations. Luisi conducts efficiently, though with some accents abruptly punched out and somewhat exaggerated variations in tempo and dynamics. The sound isn't up to Philips's usual standard, with considerable dryness, occasional shrillness, and imperfect balances. I haven't heard an earlier recording with Ricciarelli and Carreras, led by Gavazzeni, but I would guess it's at least as good (Bella Voce). But this performance is generally satisfactory, and will be valuable to Verdi completists and those seeking a Verdi novelty.

- Alex Morin


FAIREST ISLE: Songs by Dowland, Campion, Morley, Byrd, and Purcell--Barbara Bonney, sop/Jacob Heringman, lute/Phantasm viol consort/Christopher Hogwood, cond/The Academy of Ancient Music--Decca 289 466132:

Soprano Barbara Bonney is bonny indeed; she has sung and recorded a wide range of operatic roles and lieder, including lots of Mozart, always to great acclaim. Here she offers 14 English songs of the 16th to 18th centuries, from Dowland to Purcell, variously accompanied by lute, viol consort, and a small period instrument ensemble; the subjects are sometimes grave, sometimes light-hearted. Bonney's light, cool, clear voice is well suited to this material, and she sings it all with grace and charm, sparse but tasteful and idiomatic ornamentation, accurate intonation, and tender expressiveness, especially in lyrical songs like Dowland's "Come again: sweet love" and Purcell's "Fairest Isle" from King Arthur, for which the disc is named. She is occasionally a bit precious in diction and phrasing, for instance in Morley's familiar "It was a lover and a lass", but here and elsewhere her interpretations are full of subtle nuances and lovely effects. The accompaniments are equally skillful, supporting the singer at every turn, especially the work of the Phantasm consort of four viols, which also plays John Jenkins's Fantasy No. 9. The disc offers captivating music, beautifully performed, and is warmly recommended.

- Alex Morin

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