Pt. 1 of 3 • April 2003

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VIVALDI: Mandolin Concertos & Concertos for Various Instruments - Europa Galante / Fabio Biondi - Virgin Veritas 45527 (67 mins.):

The first recorded Vivaldi I remember hearing that made me suspect here was a composer of exceptionally beautiful Baroque music was an early EMI recording of The Four Seasons by Renato Fasano and Virtuosi di Roma. The first Vivaldi I heard, however, that made me suspect here was more than just a composer of exceptionally beautiful Baroque music was an LP by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic that contained the wacky Concerto for Diverse Instruments in C Major RV 558. It was a grand display of instrumental fireworks in its time, and remains so today.

Now, Fabio Bondi and his wonderful Europa Galante players have concocted a fabulous CD of some of Vivaldi's delightfully tuneful concertos for mandolins but also an excellent selection of his concertos for various instruments, two of which are more or less commonly known as concertos con molti stromenti (it sounds better that way, like an ice cream) that include solo parts for instruments like two violini in tromba marina, two salmoe and some mysterious viole all'inglese soprani. The concertos are a stupefying demonstration of Vivaldi's use of color to dazzle and stun with not only virtuoso displays but to touch emotional spots with deeply, even profoundly beautiful moments of reflection and consolation.

The performances are so alert and intoxicated that there is not one dull bar. The sound is so spectacular that it can serve as a test piece for new components. And the liner notes by Toussaint Loviko have a virtuoso appeal of their own: Imagine, if you will, the girl musicians of Vivaldi's famous orchestra, hidden by grilles curtained with black gauze, changing instruments freely, "guaranteeing an effect of surprise." Indeed!
Purchase Here

- Laurence Vittes

BARTOK: Violin Sonata No. 2. DOHNANYI: Violin Sonata, Op. 21. Cecilia Zilliacus, violin; Bengt-Åke Lundin, piano. Caprice 21612 (57 mins.):

No fiddling nymphet she, 34-year old Swedish violinist Cecilia Zilliacus makes a stunning impression with a recital headlined by a brilliant performance of one of Bartok’s greatest, and most challenging, works. Composed for Bartok’s colleague, Jelly d’Arányi (for whom Ravel wrote his Tzigane), the recently composed sonata (1921) was the highlight of what must have been an extraordinary Parisian soirée a year later attended by Stravinsky, Ravel, Honegger, Milhaud and Szymanowski.

Despite recorded competition from the teams of Gidon Kremer/Martha Argerich and David Oistrakh/Sviatoslav Richter, Zilliacus comes close to sweeping the field, combining a warm, passionate and radiant lyricism with a commanding, richly-colorful technique rich. She uses her vibrato to contrast and blend with her excellent partner at the keyboard. She finds her musical way, trembling and anticipatory, through the contrasting mysteries of the second movement, then bursts out into the “whirling popular festival” that is the third movement with wild rustic insinuations and intoxicating intellectual power.

The gentle romanticism of Dohnanyi’s much less well-known sonata provides a soothing complement to the Bartok. Zilliacus illuminates this music with autumnal colors, a broadly lyrical sense of phrase, and a smoldering passion that has definitely sexual overtones. Stig Jacobsson’s liner notes are short but totally absorbing and informative, and the razor-sharp sound is perfectly balanced with precise timbres and exceptional warmth. This is not Zilliacus’s first CD; her recording of Swedish violin sonatas was awarded first prize by the Swedish Grammy Awards in 2002. If the gods are listening, there will be many more. Purchase Here

-- Laurence Vittes

HINDEMITH: Die Harmonie der Welt (complete opera) - Arutjun Kotchinian/Francois le roux/ Christian Eisner/Sophia Larson/Rundfunkchor Berlin/Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester Berlin. Director: Marek Janowski - Wergo WER 6652 2:

There is a reason why this opera is rarely recorded and even more rarely performed. It is not very good. Hindemith’s tendency to revel in musical forms for their own sake—fugues, counterpoint, etc.—gets the better of him in this opera about the famous astronomer Johannes Kepler. What’s missing, both in the performance and in the opera itself, is the musical articulation of passion. Any passion: anger, lust, frustration. Consider the scene in which the first suitor for Susanna, Ulrich, is rebuffed. Any decent opera composer (Wagner, Berg, Puccini) would seize Ulrich’s pleading line: “the desire to experience this happiness again” and invest it with dramatic effect, such as a soaring legato or a startling dynamic change. Not here. Hindemith simply has the tenor sing the stanza, one line after another, with little change in tempo or effect. Its tempo is so fast the audience doesn’t have time to savor his urgency. In the next scene, Hindemith misses another chance for musical statement. While the militarist Tamur tries to recruit Ulrich for the next war, Hindemith inserts a contrasting chorale of churchgoers, singing the praise of God. The irony, reminiscent of the cantata scene in Act II of Tosca, falls flat and the device annoys rather than illuminates.

Also annoying is the libretto that offers no way of finding your place if you happen to turn off your stereo in mid-disc. It has no track numbers in the margins! I suppose this is an improvement for Wergo, whose previous libretto of Hindemith’s Mathis Der Mahler wasn’t even translated into English. If you’re a Hindemith fan, you may find the opera not entirely disappointing. There are intriguing choral segments and the instrumental work can be engaging. But everywhere you are reminded that the Hindemith of the Twenties, the one who produced the modernist Cardillac and the startling Neues vom Tage had long ago fled the riotous streets and sleazy hotel bathtubs for the comfy chairs of academe. Purchase Here

--Peter Bates

LISZT: Transcriptions of Bach, Wagner - Alain Lefèvre, piano - Analekta FL 2 3179 (74 mins.):

This brilliant, spaced-out recital of Liszt transcriptions by a young Canadian pianist taped in Greece is as groundbreaking an illumination of Liszt's' transformational art as Gould's was of Bach’s pure art nearly half a century ago.

From opening bars of the Prelude and Fugue BWV 543, which have a powerfully hypnotic, rhythmic swing, it is clear that this will be an extraordinary recital. The program avoids obviously sensational works for more superficially sober, large-scale challenges like the 22-minute long variations on Bach’s chromatically dense theme from the opening chorus of his cantata No. 12, Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen, in which Liszt shows how deeply he feels Bach’s response to spiritual suffering. In this and the other Bach transcription, Lefevre also gets inside Bach’s emotional world as interpreted by Liszt to an almost unparalleled degree.

In the three Wagner transcriptions, Lefèvre perfectly understand Liszt’s intention to create a piano palette that supersedes, not creates some sort of second-rate equivalent to, the original orchestral sound. The transcription of the Tannhäuser Overture, which concludes the disc, is a 20-minute reflection on the opera’s central message of torment and beauty, and it is appropriately preceded by Liszt’s intoxicated meditation of the Evening Star song from the same opera played by Lefèvre as if had drunk from the same bottle as the composer.

The sound, from Dimitris Mitropoulos Hall in Athens, doesn't have much ambience to speak of, but has strong impact and purely physical beauty, and allows the listener to clearly focus on Lefèvre's intense musical thinking. Only Guy Marchand's liner notes strike an ordinary note in this profoundly beautiful release. Purchase Here

- Laurence Vittes

Nikolaj Znaider, violin = WIENIAWSKI: Polonaise in D, Op. 4; Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 15/SARASATE: Romanza Andaluza/RACHMANINOV: Vocalise/YSAYE: "Ballade" Sonata/CHOPIN: Nocturne in D; Nocturne in E flat/ACHRON: Hebrew Melody, Op. 33/KREISLER: Recitativo and Scherzo, Op. 6/PONCE: Estellita - Daniel Gortler, piano - RCA 09026-63960-2 59:40:

Paying both homage to his teacher Boris Kuschnir and to the romantic virtuosos of the past, like Milstein, Heifetz and Elman, Polish-Israeli violinist Nikolaj Znaider makes plenty of sparks and points in this recital, which features solo and accompanied works. Kreisler and Ysaye provide the solo pyrotechnics, the latter with the D Minor Sonata from Op. 27, with its angular, whole tone proclamations, often using five-bar measures. The Kreisler compels varied and virtuosic bowing, with spitfire rapid notes, a favorite piece of Francescatti and Milstein. We have the Heifetz arrangement of Chopin's E-flat Nocturne from Op. 55, with its adversarial rhythms and liquid contour. The two Wienawski pieces allow pianist Gortler to show some stuff, too, in the midst of caprice-like works, the latter of which features a giddy gavotte and its increasingly florid variations. The Achron Hebrew Melody and Rachmaninov Vocalise allow Znaider's broad legato to persuade us of his sympathy for his chosen repertory. Ponce and Sarasate provide the Iberian strain in the program, light, flighty, and fluently coy figures that make us admire Znaider and yell "Bravo!" as the liner's subtext demands. Purchase Here

--Gary Lemco

WEBER & FERDINAND RIES: Music for Clarinet and Piano - Pierre-André Taillard, clarinet; Edoardo Torbianelli, fortepiano - Harmonia Mundi HMC 905254 (56 mins.):

Harmonia Mundi continues what has become a grand tradition of recording some of Europe's finest young clarinetists (check out their coupling of the clarinet quintets by Mozart and Brahms featuring Alessandro Carbonare) with a stunning recital by the young Swiss virtuoso Pierre-André Taillard. Playing on a copy of the 9-keyed instrument that was used by the clarinetists Weber was writing for almost two hundred years ago, Taillard achieves prodigious feats of virtuosity and romantic beauty.

We have become accustomed to the instrumental pyrotechnics that were possible on "old" recorders and oboes and gambas; now we have the opportunity to hear what an "old" clarinet could do! In Taillard's hands, it sings, gurgles, explodes, explores, soothes, coos and achieves any number of other marvelous sonic things in a rainbow of colors it would take a wine connoisseur to describe. He is superbly seconded by Edoardo Torbianelli playing on two wonderfully transparent, colorful Conrad Graf fortepianos from the early 1820s. The thirty something Torbianelli is appropriately dramatic in Ferdinand Ries's Sonata Op. 29, with its Beethovenian accents and intentions, and grandly poetic in the two Weber pieces.

It's no surprise that Weber wrote so magnificently for clarinet. After all, he was writing for (and probably with the collaboration of) the two greatest clarinetists of his time, Heinrich Baermann (to Weber what Anton Stadler was to Mozart and Joseph Beer was to Carl Stamitz) and Simon Hermstedt. And what music he wrote. Along with his Clarinet Quintet, his Grand Duo Concertant, Op. 48 is one of the Romantic repertoire's key pieces. You will be spellbound by Taillard's expansive, intoxicated handling of the central recitative section in the last movement. And you will cry for more after the exhilarating last bars of Weber's variations on a theme from his opera, Silvana.

If you love Weber, the clarinet, original instruments, and Harmonia Mundi sound at its best (which means the best there is, remarkably rich in colors, widely dynamic in range, and balanced to capture the partnership of the two instruments without prejudice to either), then snap up this marvelous CD. Dagmar Hoffmann-Axthelm's notes add to the pleasure, and the lovely cover caps a perfect triumph. You will be very happy you bought this disc. Purchase Here

- Laurence Vittes

SCHUMANN: Music for Clarinet and Piano - Martin Fröst, clarinet; Roland Pöntinen, piano - BIS CD-944 (56 mins.):

The clarinet might not, at first thought, be the ideal alternative instrument for a passionate body of Schumann's music usually performed by cello and piano (I would instinctively think, for example, of the melancholy viola). But in practice, Martin Frost's cool tone and existentialist reserve make an ideal foil for exploring the ambiguous depths of some of Schumann's most deeply personal music. Partnered by Pöntinen's elegant sound, this is extremely beautiful music-making with an oddly provocative subtext.

And of course, Fröst is not the first clarinetist to record Schumann. He follows in the footsteps of such distinguished masters of the instrument as Reginald Kell, Gervase de Peyer and Stanley Drucker. Even among clarinetists, Fröst's is not the only approach. There is certainly room for a wider, even 1920s jazz-style vibrato. But not this time.

In addition to the three standard sets -Three Romances, Op. 94; Five Pieces in Folk Style, Op. 102; and Fantasy Pieces, Op. 73 - Fröst and Pöntinen add eight transcriptions for clarinet and piano of seven songs and an evening song (the latter originally for piano, four hands). These are a nice bonus and work perfectly on the clarinet.

Working in the former Academy of Music in Stockholm, the BIS team have achieved a miracle of utterly natural sound, as if you were listening in from the wings. Horst Scholz's informative notes make their case for the clarinet with admirable brevity, and for Frost's clarinet with refreshing partisanship. Talking about the song transcriptions, Scholz comments that the clarinet "explores the same territory - [and that] the singer's comfort may reside in the fact that Martin Frost's clarinet cannot actually 'speak'. At least, not yet." Purchase Here

- Laurence Vittes

PENDERECKI: Violin Concertos - Konstanty Kulka and Chee Yun. Conducted by Antonio Witt - Naxos 8.555265:

Rumbling portentous tones. A slowly evolving sense of disquiet. Virtuosic outbursts that border on hysteria. These are some of the treats that await you if you purchase this latest volume in Antonio Witt’s series of Penderecki’s orchestral works. Both of these violin concertos are immensely compelling, although in different ways. Concerto No. 1 begins by puffing out its chest in a menacing manner. The orchestral prelude is like a video of a trip through an occupied city. At every harmonic change, danger lurks. The violin pokes its head out, surveys the territory and the adventure begins. There are hysterical outbursts that can only come from a composer as religious as Penderecki. (In the same year, he penned his Magnificat and the tone poem Jacob’s Awakening.) The piece is filled with dramatic crescendos and outbursts of fear and awe. It’s a wondrous musical log of passion’s arc, its ebb and flow, expertly rendered by violinist Konstanty Kulka.

More subdued is his Metamorphosen, (Second Violin Concerto) composed twenty years later, so called because of its changing motifs. It feels more like a journey than a diary of the composer’s plunges into ecstasy. It also begins portentously, but the violin seems more measured in its explorations – dare we say more sensible? There are snatches of lyricism and a spooky recurring four-note figure on the strings. Impassioned passages for the soloists abound, mostly in the first half. In particular there is a cadenza that shows how well violinist Chee-Yun can handle Polish angst. The last quarter of this concerto limns the dark Brucknerian regions of the soul. It may be best not to play this one before going to sleep. Purchase Here

--Peter Bates

MENDELSSOHN: Hebrides Overture, Violin Concerto in E minor, Symphony No. 3 in A minor (Scottish). Scottish Chamber Orchestra / Joseph Swensen. Linn (HDCD) CKD 205 (72 mins.):

This exceptionally beautiful new release of some of Mendelssohn's loveliest music, recorded in the Usher Hall, Edinburgh, combines state-of-the-art HDCD sound with playing of unusual grace. It underlines Linn's commitment to audiophile standards that are as musical as they are stunning, and made me curious all over again about their loudspeakers and electronics.

Whether conducting or playing the solo violin, Swensen has patience and lovely sense of line and phrasing that brings out the nobility in Mendelssohn without the slightest hint of sad or droopy. The Hebrides Overture is a miracle that unfolds with understated cumulative power, one of the great performances on record. Swensen's playing in the Violin Concerto has an unusually sexy swing to it. And while Swensen's Scottish may fall just slightly short of the greatest performances by Peter Maag (with the London Symphony on Decca) and Leonard Bernstein (with the Israel Philharmonic on DG), it has a unique radiant grandeur about it.

The superb Scottish Chamber Orchestra, well known for its many recordings under Charles Mackerras for both Hyperion and Telarc, also makes a strong showing. Its strings are supple and silky, its woodwinds, led by clarinetist Maximiliano Martin, are eloquent and full-bodied, and its brass are more elegant than brass have a right to be.

Of course, the sound Linn's production team have provided is a large part of the CD's success. Seemingly laid back, it contains reservoirs of power and detail which become increasingly telling and, although the sound is admirably smooth, it hints at the rough edges that only truly natural recordings possess. D. Martin's short liner notes are enthusiastic, although what is one to make of a first sentence that begins, "Rather than solely a composer, Felix Mendelssohn should be considered a polymath." ? Purchase Here

- Laurence Vittes

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