Pt. 1 of 2 • February 2003

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BACH: 6 Suites a Violoncello Solo senza Basso - Bruno Cocset - Alpha 029 (2 CDs) (2 hrs. 9 mins.):

Bruno Cocset's brilliant new set of the Bach solo cello suites makes most previous recordings obsolete. Playing on Charles Riché's modern copies of a ca. 1600 Gasparo Da Salo for 1 and 5, a 1734 Pietro Guarneri for 2 and 4, a 1700 Stradivari for 3, and a 1600 Antonio and Girolamo Amati violoncello piccolo for 6, Cocset takes as his departure point the kind of incandescent spontaneity and passion that Pablo Casals drew on in his classic recordings. Cocset then proceeds to explore the potential and the consequences of his highly subjective approach in a totally modern context that upsets conventional notions of what recreating Bach's music is all about.

It's an interpretive attitude based on a deeply and convincingly authentic knowledge of the cello and of Baroque performance practice. There are extraordinary decorations and improvisations, but neither so consistently nor so predictably that they become merely formulaic. Chords that have, in all recent recordings, been filled in and elaborated, are here sometimes played as chords again. But, played with a true deconstructionist's sense of touch and timbre that, when heard for the first time (as at the end of the first movement of Suite 2), they are literally breathtaking. Cocset's musical eloquence is not limited to Baroque concerns; his phrases take off in movement-long, unbroken lines, as if propelled by life force explosions. The space between movements becomes an integral part of a series of musical arcs whose cumulative expressive power is immense. The new dimensions that Cocset has opened up in this music have implications for Bach's music generally beyond the cello suites, and no one with an interest in epochal musical events should miss it.

The stunning recording by Nicolas Bartholomée, made at the Chapelle de l'Hôpital Notre-Dame de Bon Secours in Paris, captures every nuance of sonic timbre and interpretive inflection in a warm, intimate acoustic. The refreshingly brief notes have an exhilarating philosophical verve that adds to the musical enjoyment.

Although relatively obscure to U.S. audiences, Cocset has a distinguished lineage. He studied Baroque cello with Christophe Coin and Anner Bijlsma. He has worked with William Christie (Les Arts Florissants), Jordi Savall (Hespérion XX, Le Concert des Nations), Marc Minkowski (Les Musiciens du Louvre), and Christophe Rousset (Les Talens Lyriques). He has previously recorded for Alpha sonatas by Vivaldi and Jean Barrière.
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- Laurence Vittes

BACH: Partitas for Piano: No. 6 in E Minor, BWV 830; No. 3 in A Minor, BWV 827; No. 1 in B-flat Major, BWV 825

Piotr Anderszewski, piano - Virgin Classics 7243 545526 2 68:10 (Distrib. EMI):

This is the second album by Polish virtuoso Piotr Anderszewski I have auditioned (the first was his two Mozart piano concertos), and I am beginning to think of him as Walter Gieseking with repeats. It is always exciting to discover a real, new personality in music--think back to Ivo Pogorelich twenty years ago--one who solves musical problems in his own way, even while he or she exploits approaches from the past. Those who listen to Anderzewski's Bach will make their own judgments. I find him a cross between Glenn Gould's pointillistic Bach and the more fluid renditions that Schiff and Lipatti provide in this music. But this is exalted company; and I have already alluded to Walter Gieseking, among the highest masters of touch and timbre, but whose whirlwind tempos seemed to be more about acrobatics than Bach. Anderszewski has the Bach temperament without the neuroses.

Anderzewski, too, sports a dazzling array of rhythmic and dynamic colors; he make this music really move when he wants to. What I most admire is that the pure speed of execution does not detract from the innate, dance-like character of the partitas. Anderszewski's left-hand polyphony is no less articulated, so the many points of syncopation, say in the E Minor's courante, are pointed, if not explosive. The A Minor Partita benefits by some deft pedalling as well, and the ability to diminuendo while accelerating the tempo is not lost. Even the most familiar of these offerings, the B-flat Partita, gains in the salon approach, the intimacy of Anderszeski's expression. His applied nuances, in tempo, in phrase, in his sense of harmonic-rhythm, make for a refreshed view of these masterpieces, really a combination of inventions, arias, and toccatas, that dispel any "traditional" dust they may have accrued. Am I beginning to sound like a believer?

--Gary Lemco

DVORAK: Piano Quintets Op. 5 and Op. 81 - Ivan Klánsky, Prazák Quartet - Praga Digitals PRD 250 175 (62 mins.):

This is another stunning success for the Prazák Quartet whose Beethoven cycle for Praga Digitals, now into its fifth volume, is setting new standards for musical and sonic excellence. Here the Quartet set their sights on the colorful music of their countryman Dvorak. In a reading of power and poetry, they reveal the rarely-heard, early Op. 5 to be a work of considerable individuality and striking ideas.

In their performance of the famous Op. 81 they wash the familiar music clean of tradition’s cobwebs and produce an absolutely gorgeous performance. Each bar has been thought and rethought without resorting to anything awkward or contrived. In the process, the music gains tremendously in breadth—listen to the completely new lilt and inflection pianist cellist Michal Kanka gives to the well-known opening phrase (a touchstone for both cellists and chamber music aficionados); hear how it jump starts the entire piece with wonderful sense of potential energy. By combining their commanding lyrical beauty with a touching sense of reflection and the ability to create moments of drop-dead physical beauty, The Prazak Quartet’s performance easily surpasses the competition.

Better yet, the studio recording projects without strain the performance within the intimate spatial sense of a fine chamber music hall. The sound has a lovely, sumptuous bloom, each of the instruments has its characteristic, instantly recognizable timbre, you can hear the bite of each bow on the string, and the piano has an appropriately full tone without sounding too resonant. Pierre Barbier’s thorough liner notes are educational and absorbing. The Prazák Quartet will be touring the U.S. the first part of this year. If they come anywhere near where you live, don’t miss them!

- Laurence Vittes

VAUGHAN-WILLIAMS: The Early Chamber Music: Piano Quintet in C minor; Nocturne and Scherzo; Suite de Ballet; Romance and Pastorale; Romance; String Quartet in C minor; Quintet in D major; Scherzo; Three Preludes on Welsh Hymn Tunes / The Nash Ensemble: Philippa Davies, Flute; Richard Hosford, Clarinet; Richard Watkins, Horn, Marianne Thorsen, Elisabeth Wexler, Simon Blendis, Violins; Lawrence Power, Garfield Jackson, Violas; Paul Watkins, Cello; Duncan McTier, Double Bass; Ian Brown, Piano - Hyperion CDA 67381/2:

This is another disc in a recent series from the Nash Ensemble exploring the lesser-known chamber works of English composers most often known for their large scale orchestral and choral works. This is the second release dealing with chamber works by Ralph Vaughan-Williams; music coming from early on is surveyed here. Their first foray into this territory last year was an absolutely stunning presentation, and from the opening bars of the Piano Quintet in C, it's immediately obvious that the same level of delight in discovery of the treasures within one experienced upon hearing last year's set will only be compounded by the present offering.

Many of the works contained in this two-disc set date from very early in Ralph Vaughan-William's career, at a point when he was still searching to find his voice as a composer; it's well-documented that works were destroyed, and that RVW would refuse to have published pieces that did not fully satisfy him for whatever reason, and a number of works were offered first performances only after his death. In the case of this recording, five of the works contained within were never published within his lifetime, and only made available recently by his estate.

Once again (as with the previous set), we have that 'ring of familiarity' with most of these pieces -- they're undeniably from the pen of RVW, and offer so much musically that is so very characteristic of his later output -- it really makes one wonder how he could have shelved so many of these pieces in dissatisfaction. So often when you hear collections of previously unpublished works from composers they tend to be half-baked, or date from a period when the artist was still crafting his musical voice, but the maturity and musicality of all the unreleased pieces here is so unexpected -- RVW had found his voice, and his later work only perfected it. Just listen to the Piano Quintet in C, the Nocturne and Scherzo, the Suite de Ballet, the Three Preludes on Welsh Hymn Tunes -- each totally characteristic of RVW's later, classic symphonic works, and yet so fresh upon first hearing.

Hyperion has once again outdone themselves with this volume, not only as an invaluable addition to one's collection, but as a textbook offering in how chamber music should be recorded. The Henry Wood Hall is an ideal recording venue for chamber music, offering a splendid acoustic, which is captured faithfully here. And the playing of the Nash Ensemble is above reproach -- the string tone of all the instruments is exceptionally sweet and Ian Brown's piano is right in your listening room. This set is not to be missed, and if you liked the earlier volume, you'll love this one! A must have!

-- Tom Gibbs

BEETHOVEN: String Quartet No. 12 in E; String Quartet No. 14 in C / The Prazak Quartet: Václav Remes, Vlastimil Holek, Violins; Josef Kluson, Viola; Michal Kanka, Cello - Praga Digitals PRD 250181:
PROKOFIEV: String Quartet No. 2; Ballade, Op. 15; Adagio from Cinderella; Cello Sonata, Op. 119 / The Prazak Quartet: Václav Remes, Vlastimil Holek, Violins; Josef Kluson, Viola; Michal Kanka, Cello; with Jaromir Klepác, Piano - Praga Digitals PRD 250174:

Here we have two discs from the Praga Digitals label based in Paris; having not heard anything from either the label or the Prazak Quartet before these two offerings, I really didn't quite know what to expect in terms of performance or recording quality. To say that I was absolutely floored by the drop-dead gorgeous recordings and playing by these young men would be a complete understatement and do a great disservice to them -- these are among the finest recordings of chamber music I have ever heard, period, and deserve to find a much wider audience and the recognition that goes with it.

The playing of the two Beethoven Quartets here is just astonishing -- as many good traversals of these works as are currently available (Emerson, Berg and Juilliard Quartets come to mind), the Prazak may just be the best of them all, and become the new standard that others are judged by. These men from Prague offer a freshness to these works that just doesn't seem to be present from the other notable forces; their phrasing and sense of nuance in the works gives them an excitement that you just don't feel elsewhere.

I don't have a reference of comparison for the Prokofiev chamber works, but the playing has such an idiomatic quality about it that leaves no doubt that the works came from Prokofiev's pen. The string quartet is a joy to listen to, and the remaining three pieces for cello an piano are magnificent -- again I'm compelled to impress upon you that the performances and recorded sound are to die for!

I saw recently that Praga Digitals is releasing their first SACD disc in February (Rachmaninov's Vespers) -- as fabulous as these two Redbook CDs are, it's hard to see how much more of an improvement hi-res will offer, but I can't wait! Highest recommendation!

-- Tom Gibbs

RIMSKY-KORSAKOV: Sheherazade, Op. 35/BORODIN: In the Steppes of Central Asia/BALAKIREV: Islamey (orch. Lyapunov)

Sergei Levitin, violin/Valery Gergiev conducts Kirov Orchestra - Philips 289 470 840-2 62:31 (Distrib. Universal):

I have been living with Rimsky-Korsakov's Sheherazade for half a century, when I first owned the Dorati version with the London Philharmonic on 78 rpms. Since then, I have heard every conceivable interpretation, so that the ones that really stand out continue to be the Beecham, Reiner, Fricsay, Celibidache, Golovanov (in his own way) and now, this one. We can read more about Maestro Gergiev on his website, <> He has fashioned the Kirov Orchestra of St. Petersburg into a sensitive, responsive instrument that has ballet and exotic rhythms at the center of its being.

I recall an anecdote of Beecham's, speaking of a meeting with Sibelius at the composer's home: when Beecham entered the living room, the record player was on so loudly that Beecham had to back out into the patio. "I like to hear everything!" shouted Sibelius, in justification of the volume. So too will you raise the volume levels on this splendid disc: it has colors to burn, with sweeping, broad tempos and wonderful inner voicings between clarinet, violin solo, violas, harp, flute and cellos. It has languor, wit, heraldry, pomp, and rousing trumpet sections. If your imagination is infiltrated by magic lamps, flying carpets, Sabu, Rex Ingram and Conrad Veidt, you will want this CD. The Borodin and Balakirev entries only extend the vivacious and exotic colors that the Mighty Five could conjure up, in no less pageantry but on a smaller scale. The playing, by the way, is all virtuoso caliber, making Gergiev the closest thing to Mengelberg we have on the current international music scene.

--Gary Lemco

DONIZETTI: Lucie de Lammermoor. Natalie Desay, Roberto Alagna, Nicholas Cavalier, Ludovic Tezier, Orchestra and Choir of the National Opera of Lyon. EMI Virgin Classics, 5 45528 23:

It has been said that novelist Sir Walter Scott, on whose Bride of Lammermoor this opera is based, was taking opium throughout most of its composition. Perhaps this museful strategy accounts for its acute portrait of the eponymous heroine’s madness. In Donizetti’s opera, the climax is of course Lucia’s mad scene, the penultimate one in the opera. Lily Pons performed it like a flower slowly losing its petals, yet Natalie Desay becomes the whole flower wilting, bending its head toward the ground. While her voice is less theatrical, it seems as though her whole body is embracing madness and succumbing to its wiles. Her rendition of Laisse-Moi finir ma vie is the tour de force it should be, marvelously well-paced and punctuated by brief trio moments with Raymond (Nicholas Cavalier) and Henri (Ludovic Tezier). (I would love to see a DVD of this performance.) Following this scene would be difficult for anyone, and the one consigned to do it is the vocally accurate yet labile Roberto Alagna as Edgard, Lucie’s lover. His Edgard is certainly better than his Mario Cavaradosi from last year’s recording of Tosca. His yearning for the tomb is often palpable and he doesn’t try to overwhelm the chorus. Sometimes he even sounds like Pavarotti. Yet he is unpredictable. One moment he is histrionic, the next he plunges into rarified tenderness with sparse vocal continuum in between. Despite these occasional burrs, this is a scintillating venture. Evelino Pidò directs his orchestra well, handling the finale with deftly executed excitement and grace.

--Peter Bates

BEETHOVEN: Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 61; Romance in G, Op. 40; Romance in F, Op. 50 - Anne-Sophie Mutter, violin /Kurt Masur conducts New York Philharmonic - DGG 389 471 349-2 64:10 (Distrib. Universal):

This performance of the Beethoven Violin Concerto taped in May 2002 is something special: it has two collaborators of similar, Apollinian temperament, approaching this Titan among violin concertos with a combination of breadth, grace, and wit. Mutter remains the Karajan protege, which means she favors a long, slick line; and her long view of the melodic phrases coincides with her own prior interpretation with Karajan and Karajan's other recorded version with Christian Ferras. Along with the famed Schneiderhahn/Furtwaengler and Menuhin/Furtwaengler accounts, and the Grumiaux/Beinum rendition, this sweetly lyrical inscription captures Beethoven's written indication "sempre perdendosi" (always forgetting oneself) to a tee. There are ravishing moments when the five-beat rhythm and the flow of the melody so intertwine that one is simply mesmerized by the effect. Mutter favors the Kreisler cadenzas, which she plays with an aplomb, even a fury, that bespeak her capacity to make this a pyrotechnical affair. The last movement has verve and humor, with Mutter's slowing down the last repetition of the rondo to a marcato in harmonics. The two Romances, basically studies for the G Major theme and variations of the Concerto, are tenderly presented. The DGG sonics are wonderfully quiet, so the bassoon, tympani, oboe, French horn, and solo violin each stand out in exquisite relief. While it is hard to recommend yet another performance of the Beethoven Violin Concerto to an already lengthy catalogue, this disc urges our attention.

--Gary Lemco

TELEMANN: Flute Concertos - Emmanuel Pahud, Berliner Barock Solisten / Rainer Kussmaul - EMI Classics 57397 (66 mins.):

At some point in this century, the reconstruction work on Georg Philipp Telemann's reputation will conclude with a definitive evaluation of his worth. Was he a mindless note spinner or a profound musical thinker? Based on the evidence, it's still hard to say whether the latter is true, but the former certainly is not.

In this newest bit of testimony, Emmanuel Pahud and the Berlin Barock Solisten contribute a recital of flute concertos, with plenty of solo riffs for other instruments, that are so sinfully delicious and decadent that I cannot stop playing it. Some of the music will be familiar to Telemann aficionados (of which I am glad to say there seem to be an increasing number), some will not. The twenty tracks are studded with moments of drop dead beauty, and the sound is like velvet, so good and rich and sexy that you think it can't really be audiophile-but is!

The performances, on original instruments and featuring some of Berlin's finest instrumentalists (first violinist Rainer Kussmaul was one of the Berlin Philharmonic's concertmasters in recent years), are musicologically correct, although certainly not of the risk-taking sort that you would hear from a Frans Brüggen. The Swiss-French Pahud himself, who seems to be the only player not using an "authentic" instrument, transcends conventional interpretive considerations with his luscious tone and gorgeous phrasing. No wonder he has been EMI's star flutist since 1997 (although his first recording seems to have been tucked away on Villa-Lobos recital for Marco Polo in 1994). And while Ulrike's Feld's liner notes may be straight-laced, they are clearly the work of a Telemann lover and bear reading for their authoritative information and enthusiastic insights.

- Laurence Vittes

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