CLASSICAL CDs   Pt. 1 of 2 • November 2003

BEETHOVEN: Fidelio – Angela Denoke (Leonore), Jon Villars (Florestan), Alan Held (Don Pizarro), Laszó Polghár (Rocco), Juliane Banse (Marzelline), Rainer Trost (Jaquino), with the Arnold Schoenberg Chorus and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sir Simon Rattle – EMI 5-57555-2 (2 CDs, 110 mins.):

A tremendous new Fidelio from Rattle, whose set of the Beethoven symphonies with the Vienna Philharmonic I reviewed favorably earlier this year. As with the symphonies, Rattle liberates his band by focusing on his own curiosity about how Beethoven put the notes together, following the latest research in terms of what the composer had in mind (he helped prepare the performing edition); the differences are less noticeable in the opera, mostly confined to dynamic and rhythmic gradations. One thing is the same: It is the orchestra, in this case a stupendous Berlin Philharmonic, that is the star.

That is not to say that the cast is weak in any way. The young German soprano Angela Denoke, for example, voted Singer of the Year by Opernwelt in 1999, is magnificently commanding, passionate, unafraid of the terrible physical demands puts on her, perfectly symbolizing the heroism and idealism that Beethoven invested in her. Only Jon Villars’ Florestan lets the side down a bit.

But it is the Berlin Philharmonic, singing sweetly in the upper strings, woodwinds and French horns, and growling and snarling with its deep strings and brass, that conjure up sounds so glorious that they suggest this is what the orchestra may have sounded like under the great Wilhelm Furtwängler. And with Rattle leading it on a merry chase, at unpredictable speeds and idiosyncratic phrasing, but never losing the dramatic flow, and finding great depths in quiet corners that are usually brushed past by less caring conductors, it becomes the dominant player. It’s reminiscent of another great recording, Lorin Maazel’s self-consciously audiophile 1964 Decca set with Birgit Nilsson and the Vienna Philharmonic. Taken together, these two sets may not add up to the traditional power of a Furtwängler, but they are an amazing pair.

The recording, taken from concert performances at the Berlin Philharmonie, following staged performances at the Salzburg Easter Festival 2003, is rich and clean and tawny warm, with astonishing detail and on a very big soundstage. Richard Wigmore’s elegant notes serve the expert as well as the newcomer. Purchase here

- Laurence Vittes

LOS MINISTRILES: Spanish Renaissance Wind Music - Piffaro, the Renaissance Band - Archiv Blue 474 232-2 (71 mins.):

This mid priced reissue of a highly successful recital of instrumental performances of Spanish Renaissance music both sacred and secular, first released in 1996, is one of those perfect CDs for checking out your components and auditioning new ones. The sounds made by the pipers of Piffaro, founded in Philadelphia in 1980, are so distinctive and so precisely recorded (the deed was done in the St. Osdag Church in Neustadt, Lower Saxony), and the music so irresistible and varied, that you can listen to it over and over again as you work your way through different components and configurations.

Those sounds include, but are not limited to, shawms, recorders, crumhorns, sackbuts, dulcians, bagpipes, guitars, various percussion and the always popular hurdy-gurdy. The sequencing of the pieces is tweaked to perfection, from the opening cries of shawms and sackbuts to the closing dance of bagpipes and drum. The performances have attitude without going over the top, and the recorded sound is rich in depth and spatial information, not to mention color. For sampling, try the two minutes of track number 18, the frequently recorded Propinan de Melyor, in which the musings of a solitary pipe are interrupted by the thwack of a tabor after which the ensemble grows increasingly larger in size, like a brass band marching into town for a fair. It's all entrancing in a similarly naïve, delightful way.

As Fabrice Fitch's liner notes are fun in a sort of academic way, only the plain blue cover, in contrast to the original release which sported one of Goya's most exuberant efforts, is a disappointment. Purchase here

- Laurence Vittes

BRAHMS: Sonata No. 3 in F Minor, Op. 5; 2 Pieces, Op .76; 5 Hungarian Dances - Evgeny Kissin, piano - RCA 09026-63886-2 56:13:

Recorded in late December 2001, this all-Brahms collection took me back, especially in the two pieces from Op. 76, to my old 78 rpm shellacs of Artur Rubinstein, who, like Kissin and Richter, was no "integralist" when inscribing music, but provided enough technique and sentiment to warrant further investigations into this repertory. The F Minor Sonata (1854) is a knotty, sometimes ungainly piece; its strongest writing may well be the interior movements, with their lyricism that derives from Chopin and Schumann. The latter's "Eusebius," his dreamy, poetic side, seems to inform Kissin's rendition, which loves to muse over Brahms's penchant for sequences, rocking pendulum-like, until the more Dionysian elements, strong syncopations and the ferocious Scherzo, take over. If the aggressive middle movement hearkens to Beethoven, then the finale, after a forward-looking Intermezzo, takes Bach as its inspirator and combines swirling motifs and stretto to make a dramatic conclusion.

Balancing all these impulses is tricky, and pianists from Katchen to Rubinstein, to Solomon and Kempff, have made an alternately Teutonic or Latin go of it. My most enduring memory of this piece in concert is the staggering, beautiful performance by Jorge Bolet in Atlanta, never issued on disc. Beauty of tone informs Kissin's playing of the two bits of "old bachelor music" Brahms wrote in 1878, the A Minor Intermezzo, and the B Minor Capriccio, whose appoggiaturas still manage a smile. Its hint of Hungarian flavor makes a perfect segue for five of the composer's own 2-hand transcriptions of Hungarian Dances, all of which Kissin dashes off with aplomb and finesse, enough in the final D-flat to compel thoughts of Cziffra's way with Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsodies! This is a young man's Brahms, trying his hands at music he may well revisit later on. We will want to own those records, too. Purchase here

--Gary Lemco

BACH: Violin Concertos 1 & 2, Double Violin Concerto in D minor, Oboe & Violin Concerto in C minor - Hilary Hahn, violin, with Margaret Batjer, violin, Allan Vogel, oboe, and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra conducted by Jeffrey Kahane - DG B0000986-02 (58 mins.):

I was at one of the concerts that took place as prep for these recordings (made in October 2002 and January 2003). I disliked the feverish pace Hahn set, and the mechanical results she and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra under Jeffrey Kahane achieved. Though the speeds are still fast, and the emotional range severely limited, the musical results are much better, and one can imagine that the live concerts (intentionally or not) served as run throughs to check for accuracy and "rightness" of pace.

Like her previous recordings for Sony, Hahn debut on her new label, Deutsche Grammophon, shows her to be an absolute master of her instrument in which her ingratiating technical command is allied to a fluid sense of phrasing and dynamic gradation. It will not be every listener's kind of Bach, but it demands to be heard at least once. Kahane has resisted his usual impulse to over conduct, and the superb orchestra, which is one of L.A.'s great musical treasures, plays in absolute synch and sympathy. The Oboe & Violin Concerto, in which Allan Vogel's sweet tone and stunning virtuosity make him Hahn's perfect and equal partner, is the CD's one indisputably great performance.

The exquisite sound, in the beautiful new Herbert Zipper Hall at the Colburn School of Performing Arts, is gleaming, warm and precise, alive to the colors of the small ensemble and its distinguished soloists. In the accompanying booklet, Hahn's foreword is an unconvincing reflection on Bach that begins with a quote by T.S. Eliot, while James Keller's more conventional notes, which follow, are quite beautiful and illuminating. Purchase Here

- Laurence Vittes

BERLIOZ: Harold en Italie--Symphonie, Op. 16; Ballet Music from Les Troyens - Tabea Zimmermann, viola
Sir Colin Davis conducts London Symphony Orchestra
LSO Live LSO0040 52:18 (Distrib. Harmonia Mundi):

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Berlioz, so it is little wonder that the LSO label will be bringing out a 12-CD set in honor of Sir Colin Davis' long association with this music. Here is one of the components, the recent performance (February 2003) of Harold, along with the December 2000 excerpts from Les Troyens. Tabea Zimmermann packs a lovely, sweet tone and a long-line approach to the music. I rather like hearing the March of the Pilgrims taken at a true andante, rather than as a cumbersome adagio tempo; the walking prayer enjoys a propulsion that Koussevitzky and Primrose achieved (in 1944) and many subsequent recordings lost. From the G Minor opening fugato and through the wild Orgy of the Brigands, Davis is attentive to all the colors, from bassoon to harp to flute, and the blending of tones is the real, Berlioz virtuosity. The LSO battery makes its powerful presence felt in the finale. The ballet music from The Trojans consists of four pieces, including the Queen's entrance and ending with the chorus of Nubien slavers, Berlioz' anticipation of Verdi's Aida. Like most LSO issues, the disc runs a bit short, but the bright colors and musical excitements should compensate for our not having another 20 minutes' worth of Berlioz. Purchase here

--Gary Lemco

ERKKI-SVEN TÜÜR: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra; Aditus; Exodus - Isabelle van Keulen, violin/City of Birmingham Symphony Orch./Paavo Järvi - ECM New Series 1830:

While there’s a lack of bio information in English on the composer, it appears he is Estonian and this is his second CD for ECM. He is part of that trend of many composers today to move away from being locked into one dogma or another, yet not embracing a sort of “anything goes” philosophy such as found, say, in some of the NYC Bang On a Can participants and others. He feels he is open to both Minimalism and the Modernist legacy and he is trying to synthesize the two. Tuur strives to create music in a constant developmental mode, and says his Violin Concerto is a good example of that. It is serialized, but generates a good deal of emotional communication which reminded me of Alban Berg in some sections. In fact, the concerto would make a wonderful concert pairing with the Berg Violin Concerto. Like another Eastern European composer, Kancheli, Tuur achieves a very powerful sound with huge contrasts in dynamics. Aditus is a celebration of the life of the late Estonian composer Lepo Sumera, and in Exodus the composer deals with the idea of escaping from the force of gravity. The busy work builds to a tremendous climax with a rock drum-kit coming out of the percussion section, reflecting Tuurs’ belief that contemporary composers can learn from the textures and sonorities of rock and jazz. It reminded me of a rather dour version of Michael Torke. Purchase here

- John Sunier

KHACHATURIAN: Flute Concerto; IBERT: Four Pieces for solo flute; Flute Concerto - Emmanuel Pahud, flute/Zurich Town Hall Orchestra/David Zinman - EMI Classics 5 575632:

Khachaturian offered his Violin Concerto to Jean-Pierre Rampal to arrange when the famous flutist asked the Armenian composer to write a flute concerto for him. The transformation worked very well, and the work gets many performances in its flute version as opposed to the original. It abounds in Armenian, Georgian and Azerbaijanian melodies and the orchestration is brilliant. Ibert’s flute concerto was premiered in l934. The French composer’s love of traveling is shown in the middle movement of the concerto, which strongly recalls his earlier orchestral tour of the Mediterranean - Ports of Call. Fine performance in fine sound. Recommended. Purchase here

- John Sunier

Felix Hell - Organ Sensation = GUILMANT: Sonata No. 1 in D Minor; RHINEBERGER: Abendfriede; VIERNE: Symphony No. 1 - Final; LISZT: Prelude and Fugue on B-A-C-H, Fantasy and Fugue on Ad nos, ad salutarem undam - at the Schoenstein organ, First-Plymouth Congregational Church, Lincoln, Nebraska - Reference Recordings HDCD RR-101CD:

The title slogan for this CD is no exaggeration - I recently heard the 18-year-old organist in a live performance and he is a fully-realized, sensitive and skilled professional artist. It all began at age seven in Germany when he heard and watched a pianist play Bach's first Prelude from the WTC. He then proceeded to play it himself. Sounds like young Mozart! The Guilmant Sonata, influenced by Beethoven, is a more intimate work than the big organ symphonies of his contemporaries such as Vierne. The Liszt work on the letters of Bach's name is an organ classic and in the fugue of the piece Hell literally pulls out all the stops in a virtuoso display. I want to thank Hell and Reference Recordings for identifying a loose driver in one of my three subwoofers. The lowest frequencies of this very wide-range HDCD recording produced the most awful rattle imaginable in the affected speaker even at fairly low volume, and I was quickly moved to tighten up the screws on it as well as the others to cure the problem. Nothing else I had played lately had elicited that sound and I often had the volume much higher. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

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