Pt. 1 of 2 • December 2002

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Les Lumieres de Noel: Christmas Lights / BACH: Christmas Cantatas / Collegium Vocale - Philippe Herreweghe, Director / CHARPENTIER: Pastorale - Les Arts Florissants / William Christie, Director / SCHUTZ: The Nativity / Concerto Vocale / Rene Jacobs, Director / CORELLI: Christmas Concerto / Ensemble 415 / Chiara Bianchini, Director - Harmonia Mundi HMX 2908119/22:

This mid-priced set collects four discs previously only available separately and offers tremendous value to everyone looking to enhance their enjoyment of the holiday season with late 17th and early 18th century works commemorating the birth of Christ.
Of the works presented, the Bach Christmas Cantatas, along with the Corelli Concerti Grossi are probably still most frequently performed today and should ring familiar to most ears. I had not heard the Charpentier and Schutz prior to getting this set, but both are valuable additions to any collection, with excellent singing and playing throughout, although this is true of all four discs in the collection. And with the likes of Philippe Herreweghe, William Christie and Rene Jacobs at the helm, how can you go wrong?
The oldest of the set dates from 1982, but the sound quality is uniformly excellent. I know that four CDs is a lot of music, but when it's as good as this -- if only the Holidays were a little longer!

-- Tom Gibbs

Weihnacht der Romantik = Romantic Christmas Songs / RIAS-Kammerchor / Uwe Gronostay, Conductor - Harmonia Mundi HMC 901794:

This German ensemble most recently gave us an excellent disc of 20th century English choral music, and the superb performances there are followed here with another outstanding acapella offering. Upon receiving this disc, I have to admit that I was more than a little disappointed that among the 25 selections listed, none of them were familiar, save Stille Nacht. However, listening proved that many of the carols were indeed the ones we know and love, just in their original German form. The discs' title, Romantic Christmas Songs, mainly refers to the period from which the songs were drawn, the 19th and early 20th century.
The recorded sound again is superlative, with the choral forces occupying a broad and deeply resonant soundstage. Harmonia Mundi just continues to amaze with the consistently excellent quality of their choral recordings -- and this disc will certainly make a welcome addition to your collection.

-- Tom Gibbs

Home to Thanksgiving: Songs of Thanks and Praise / Theatre of Voices - Paul Hillier, Director - Harmonia Mundi HMX 2907264:

Paul Hillier just brings a certain magic to everything he partakes in, and this disc is no exception. The tracks are culled from previous HM discs by various Hillier-led vocal groups, including Theatre of Voices and His Majesties Clerkes, and offers an overview of thanksgiving that traverses the ages. The Currier and Ives cover of the CD may suggest that a broad selection of Americana is to be found within, but nothing could be farther. Included are traditional American and English hymn tunes and motets and chants from such sources as Thomas Tallis and John Cage. Though rather diverse in nature, the program flows seamlessly throughout the tracks. The early American hymn The Apple Tree is one of the many highlights within. This disc is guaranteed to raise your spirits throughout all your holiday celebrations.

-- Tom Gibbs

WALTON: Chamber Music: Violin Sonata; Piano
Quartet; Anon in Love for Guitar and Tenor; Waltz from Facade; Passacaglia for Solo Cello / The Nash Ensemble with John Mark Ainsley, Tenor - Hyperion CDA 67340:

This disc serves as a companion to a recent Hyperion release by the Nash Ensemble that covered chamber works by Ralph Vaughan-Williams, a disc that I just raved about a short while back. I expected much of the same from the current Walton disc, but much to my surprise, I just don’t find this disc nearly as involving as its predecessor.
My first complaint came from the sound of the disc, which didn’t seem nearly as lush as on the earlier recording, so I quickly checked the venue to see whether the same location was used. It was in fact, although separated by about six months – maybe the change of season played some part in the recorded sound of the hall; nonetheless, the instruments just didn’t have the same robustness and warmth as on the VW disc.
Secondly, the performances just were much less accessible to me personally than on the VW disc. Being a huge Vaughan-Williams fan, that disc was a voyage of discovery for me personally; this disc, while there’s intrinsically nothing wrong with the playing or the material – it just didn’t affect me the way in which the earlier disc did.

-- Tom Gibbs

ATTAINGNANT: Lute Works / Hopkinson Smith, Lute - Naive E 8854:

Pierre Attaingnant was a lutenist and printer in Paris in the mid sixteenth century; with his expertise in music the publishing house he founded soon became the foremost music publisher in France and he became the official printer of the King. During this period he came in contact with many lutenists and compiled two volumes of their work. Of the countless pieces published over a 25-year period, only 100 or so remain and many are attributed to Attaingnant.
The pieces performed here by Hopkinson Smith are a mixture of chansons, preludes and a variety of dances; the music is at the same time refeshingly new and yet familiar -- Mr. Smith has a long-time relationship with Jordi Savall, and it's entirely possible that some of this music may at some time have been played by his ensemble. The recorded sound is excellent, with the lute having a very warm and full-bodied tone.
This disc will fill you with a sense of déjà vu, and will leave you wanting to hear more by Hopkinson Smith.

-- Tom Gibbs

BACH: Complete Violin Sonatas and Partitas / Rachel Podger, Baroque Violin - Channel Classics CCSSEL 2498:

No one composer divides the masses as much as J.S. Bach. On the one hand, you have the original instrument camp, always insisting on historically informed performances. On the other hand, you have the Glenn Goulds of the world, who insist that were Bach here today, he would have demanded that his music be played on modern instruments. What a woundrous bounty this age-old argument has given to music lovers!
By recording these works on baroque violin, Rachel Podger has launched another volley from the original instrument side. While I can't complain at all about the stellar sonics of the recording, I have to say that the competition is fierce in these works, and recordings by Lara St. John (on Well-Tempered) and Jenifer Koh (on Cedille) show more of the fire and blazing virtuosity we've come to expect in this music.
That's not to in any way invalidate Ms. Podger's approach, and she is not without her moments -- her playing in the Prelude and Gigue movements of the Partita no. 3 and the Allegro from the Sonata no. 3 is superb -- this set might serve well to offer a contrasting view of these works from what has come to be accepted as the norm.

-- Tom Gibbs

Baltic Voices 1: Choral Works / KREEK; SANDSTROM; RAUTAVAARA; TORMIS; PART; VASKS / Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir with the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra - Paul Hillier, Director - Harmonia Mundi HMU 907311:

Baltic countries have a deeply-rooted choral tradition, and historically have produced some of the finest choirs and choral composers of the 20th century. The works here include three world premieres, and offer a broad contrast of choral styles. All works are presented acapella with the exception of the final selection, Vasks' 'Dona Nobis Pacem,' the choir is joined by the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra.
The 'Psalms of David' of Kreek, and 'Hear My Prayer, O Lord' by Sandstrom come closest to approaching traditional choral values -- everything else here is all over the map stylistically. Works by Rautavaara and Tormis occasionally venture into 'Lux Aeterna' territory -- fortunately, the vast majority of the music here offers healthy doses of the mystical beauty that seems to permeate so much of the choral compositions from the Baltic region.
The recording is another (I hate to sound like a broken record) really amazing presentation -- everything I said about the other HM choral discs applies equally here as well -- another must have.

-- Tom Gibbs

The Call of the Phoenix: Rare 15th Century English Church Music / Orlando Consort - Harmonia Mundi HMU 907297:

On The Call of the Phoenix, the Orlando Consort explores 15th century English church music, of which only fragments remain of what was a fertile period in the development of the English vocal tradition. The recording was made in a Scottish church and captures the warmth and presence of the hall with a superb ambient presentation. The rich vocal harmonies of the Orlando Consort make this disc a pleasure to listen to; the music, even though rare, still rings familiar and garners this disc highest recommendations.

-- Tom Gibbs

RAN: Excursions, Fantasy Variations, Soliloquy, Verticals. The Peabody Trio; Seth Knopp, Piano; Natasha Brofsky, cello. New World Records, 80554-2:

Israeli-born composer Shulamit Ran astounds once again with her angular chamber music compositions. Her Excursions (1997) for solo cello probes and pokes about, exploring motives rather than establishing themes. It’s like a visit through an abandoned Victorian house, each motive opening a door to a room of curiosities—ones that aren’t quite treasures. Archly played by Natasha Brofsky, this work is best when it explores the cello’s dark registers toward the end than when blithely skipping about the scales like a child in a theatre aisle. Her teasing legatos and sly pizzicatos are sometimes appealing, as is the delicately atonal finale. Ran’s piano trio Soliloquy is a more accessible work, with a clearly melancholic opening that soon becomes spiked with cranky interjections by the strings. As in the work of Alfred Schnittke, disturbing moments alternate with brief rhythmic interludes and frustrated outbursts. This is bipolar music at its best. The piece settles back into melancholy, then crumbles away like a winter leaf. Her piano sonata Verticals (1982) toys with its audience like an ecdysiast, revealing generous swatches of spirit a bit at a time. Its twittering arpeggios and scalar runs are so tantalizing it seems as though the piece is smiling slyly while you listen. Its adagio steps haltingly, beckoning you to follow, but only so far before it pushes you back with harsh sonorities. It is an assertive, fully-in-control work that reveals more at each listening. Excursions (1980) for piano trio is the longest and most intriguing work on the disc. Its instruments play off each other beautifully, with echo effects that provide atmospheric counterpoint. This disc is an excellent introduction to the work of Shulamit Ran.

--Peter Bates

Rare Transcriptions for Violin and Piano: SAINT-SAENS / YSAYE / Philippe Graffin, Violin ; Pascal Devoyon, Piano - Hyperion CDA 67285:

I almost didn’t order this disc, and finally after a great deal of internal debate decided to go ahead and get it. For whatever reason it just didn’t jump out at me as something I needed to hear – thank goodness that I second guessed myself, because this is one of the best discs I’ve heard all year and is definitely on my top ten list for 2002.
The disc consists of transcriptions made by Saint-Saens of his own works, and also contains transcriptions by Saint-Saens and Ysaye of select Chopin works for piano and violin. The two Caprices by Saint-Saens are astonishing to listen to, and the more familiar Chopin Nocturnes makes one wonder why these transcriptions haven’t seen the light of day any sooner than now.
Philippe Graffin and his accompanist Pascal Devoyon offer this program in absolutely resplendent sound – this disc succeeds on every level, from fabulous playing to the equally fabulous recording which gives us every nuance of the recording and venue. Highest recommendation – this disc is a must have and will be a revelation to all who hear it!

-- Tom Gibbs

HANDEL: Oratorio arias--David Daniels, countertenor/John Nelson, cond/Ensemble Orchestral de Paris--Virgin 7231 545497:

The term “contratenor” originally referred to an alto line just above tenor in Renaissance polyphony, and later came to signify (as does “countertenor”) the male alto who sang that line. There is some argument about whether all countertenors are falsettists or whether for some it’s a naturally produced voice. In either case, I don’t have much use for it; most countertenors squeeze out the notes unevenly, with a good deal of whooping and hollering, and the notion that they can be substituted for the castrati who used to sing in Handel’s operas and oratorios is absurd. I must say, however, that David Daniels is as good as they get. His voice is clear, pure, evenly produced, accurately placed, and he handles the coloratura passages easily, though he doesn’t bring much expressiveness to these mostly unfamiliar arias. There are lovely accounts of “Despair no more shall wound me” from Semele and “The raptured soul” from Theodora, among others. An enjoyable recital, in excellent sound.

--Alex Morin

The Noël Coward Songbook
Ian Bostridge, Sophie Daneman, Jeffrey Tate
EMI Classics 57374

Schubert Piano Sonata D. 959. Pilgerweise, D. 789. Der Unglückliche, D. 713. Auf dem Strom, D. 943. Die Sterne, D. 939.
Leif Ove Andsnes, Ian Bostridge, Timothy Brown
EMI Classics 57266:

Though each may be a marketing person’s dream as far as concepts go, neither of this pair of discs featuring English tenor Ian Bostridge convinces. The Coward recital is particularly disappointing, especially since the singer takes great pains in his liner notes to express his extravagant admiration for the composer by comparing Coward to Irving Berlin and Cole Porter on the one hand (undeserved) and Kurt Weill on the other (absurd).

Where Coward at his raffish best combines a clever, cynical wit with a certain lyrical swing, these turn out to be qualities which, at least on this recording, Bostridge lacks to an alarming extent. It’s not just that he’s too stuffy, he’s also not very hip not to mention being largely devoid of sense of the sleazy if raffish persona with which Coward made his name. The slightly dry acoustic is not bad, but not inspiring either, and Tate’s deadpan playing never really plays the part it might.

The Schubert disc is another concept, although in time it might actually work out just fine. As Andsnes says in his bushy-tailed liner notes, “I think this combination of sonatas and songs is a beautiful one. It’s a wonderful way of being introduced to Schubert’s music, because you can be exposed to many of his qualities on one disc.” Unfortunately, when the one essential quality, really illuminating performances, is lacking, Andsnes’s conceptual vision is really beside the point. Unfortunately, he is the main culprit with a basically straightforward performance of the big A Major sonata that only occasionally catches fire. Only in the Andantino does he genuinely seem affected by the music’s meandering beauties.

At least Bostridge better serves Schubert than he does Coward with some lovely singing in which beautiful legato tones float above more some genuinely moving playing by Andsnes. Auf dem Strom is less successful, however, due to surprisingly fast speeds and Timothy Brown’s perfunctory French horn obbligato. At least, the sound is gorgeous, rich and detailed so, if you’re a Bostridge fan and fancy collecting his Schubert, Andsnes’s new series may not be a total let-down.

- Laurence Vittes

DIVAS OF MOZART’S DAY = Opera arias by Mozart, Salieri, and others--Patrice Michaels, sop/Peter Van De Graaf, bass-bar/Stephen Alltop, cond/Classical Arts Orchestra--Cedille 90000 054:

Musicologist Dorothea Link had the clever idea of putting together a recital of arias written to display the virtuosity of the great singers--Catarina Cavalieri, Nancy Storace, and others--whom Emperor Joseph II brought to his Court Theater in Vienna in the 1780s. The composers include Mozart, Salieri, Soler, and others, and all of them wrote skillfully in the conventional operatic idiom of the time. Most of the music is unfamiliar, and a number of the selections are said to be first recordings. All this is entrusted to the capable hands of soprano Patrice Michaels, accompanied by Stephen Alltop’s brisk direction of the Classical Arts Orchestra. Michaels has a good voice, clear and secure, handling the coloratura easily and with some wit, for instance in “How Mistaken is the Lover” from Stephen Storace’s opera The Doctor and the Apothecary. She doesn’t have much interpretive insight, but that doesn’t greatly diminish our pleasure in her singing, especially of several of Mozart’s concert arias like “Non temer, amato bene”. A nice idea, nicely executed.

--Alex Morin

THE ART OF CECILIA BARTOLI = Opera arias by Handel, Vivaldi, Gluck, Mozart, and Rossini--Decca 73380:

Bartoli made her television debut in 1985, but for most of us, she first came to our attention with her 1988 recording of Barber of Seville. Since then, she has sung and recorded most of the Baroque and Classical mezzo-soprano repertory and a good deal of the soprano material as well, resolutely avoiding anything written after 1850. I can’t abide her mugging in person, but while she has some vocal and interpretive deficiencies, on the whole I enjoy her singing. In her chosen repertory, her voice is bright, accurate, and agile. Her tones are sometimes a bit squally, and everything she sings sounds pretty much the same, without a lot of characterization, but the sameness doesn’t keep it from charm and effectiveness. This disc offers mostly unfamiliar arias from some of the complete operas she recorded from 1992 to 1999. It’s a fair representation of her art, and now that Marilyn Horne has pretty much retired, Bartoli is much the best mezzo we have. She’s really very good.

--Alex Morin

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