Pt. 1 of 2 • January 2003

click on any cover to go directly to its review

HANDEL: Arcadian Duets
Laura Claycomb, Natalie Dessay, Véronique Gens, Juanita Lascarro, Anna Maria Panzarella, Patricia Petibon, sopranos; Marijana Mijanovic, Sara Mingardo, altos; Brian Asawa, countertenor; Paul Agnew, tenor -
Le Concert d’Astrée / Emmanuelle Haïm - Virgin Veritas 45224 (62 mins.):

A surprisingly obscure trove of Handelian treasure serves as the vehicle for the stunning debut of a recently-ascended star in the early music firmament.

During his Italian “apprenticeship” in 1710, working for patrons such as Cardinal Pamphili and the Marquis Ruspoli (both of whom were members of the Arcadian Academy, hence the title of this CD), Handel began composing vocal duets in a pastoral style radiant with sensuality and charged with thrilling virtuosity. The music on this enterprising CD reflects the continuing development of that style through 1745 (when he had been in London for more than two decades). There may be little to indicate the dramatic power that would make him famous, they are irresistible just the same. And, in fact, Handel reused many of these duets in later operas and oratorios—listeners familiar with his music will find many pre-echoes here.

The performances are spectacular, and it is would be unfair to single out any of the women (the men are more routine); suffice it to say that the way the not-motley crew of sopranos and mezzos present the many moments of exquisite beauty, often followed by dazzling runs into the high registers, will break many hearts. In order to get the performances’ full impact, however, it is necessary to push the volume on the dynamically restrained recording.

Key to the disc’s success is the pulsing leadership provided by Emmanuelle Haïm whose conducting career was launched in 2001 when she led the Glyndebourne Touring Opera’s production of Handel's Rodelinda. This is her first CD, and more is in the offing including Handel’s Aci, Galatea e Polifemo with Natalie Dessay, and Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas starring Susan Graham and Ian Bostridge with Felicity Palmer.

- Laurence Vittes

Denyce Graves: The Lost Days
Denyce Graves, mezzo-soprano, and friends
RCA Red Seal 63726-2 (66 mins.)

Creamy-voiced Denyce Graves joins forces with a crew of world-class Latin instrumentalists to make music in a thrilling, sensual and occasionally erotic manner. Aided by first-class studio sound, the wide range of color in the thirtysomething's mezzo-soprano's voice, and the seductive inflections she uses it with (including a wonderfully delicious attention to the sexy nuances of the Portuguese language), this is a perfect CD for straying from the classical straight and narrow. And although Graves occasionally strains in the upper reaches, and doesn't sound totally convincing when she reaches for the sultry and low, in the wide swath of everything else, she is commanding.

Typical of an increasing number of offerings from major labels these days, the repertoire, incorporating South American and Caribbean influences, crosses over from the generally more interesting classical (two tracks by Heitor Villa-Lobos, three by the Argentinean Carlos Guastavino) to the generally more conventional jazz and Latin pop. Cuban-born Chucho Valdés contributes a wonderful Habanera de Lorraine and a lovely Romanza de Denyce. Omnipresent Astor Piazzolla, of course, is also well represented.

The rich, consistent sound, spatially well-spread and precise if a little close-up, is just the thing for audiophiles needing to identify critical differences in changes of equipment, cabling and other key ancillary components. Tracks six through eight, with the percussive rhythms and soaring vocal lines of José María Vitier's The Forest at Dawn leading to the ecstasy of Villa-Lobos's Song of the Eighteenth Century Poet, the simple elegance of Guastavino's Lost Days and the smoldering passion of Valdés's habanera, constitute an excellent testing sequence. Good to start out at lower volume levels, however, and let the sound gradually assert itself.

- Laurence Vittes

Our American Journey--Chanticleer--Teldec 0027-48556:

The journey in the title of this disc is through time, not space. In no discernible order, it offers a kind of survey of songs of the Americas from Juan de Lienas’s 17rh-century Credidi through William Billings, Stephen Foster, and George Gershwin to four contemporary works written for these singers, all world premieres, by Steven Stucky, Jackson Hill, Brent Michael Davids, and William Hawley. Chanticleer was formed almost 25 years ago, and for all this time the 12 male singers of the group (13 when they are joined by their current music director, Joseph Jennings) have had disciplined, well-trained, and quite lovely voices. However, Teldec’s recording makes their individual lines preternaturally distinct, to the loss of the kind of blend we seek in choral singing, and Jennings’s arrangements are too contrived for my taste, especially of such familiar songs as “Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair” and “Love Walked In”. But what we hear is really very beautiful, and this release would be a good gift for someone you forgot to put on your Christmas list.

--Alex Morin

MONK: Mercy. Meredith Monk, Theo Blackmann, Allison Easter, et al. EMC New Series 1829 289 472:

This music is difficult to evaluate or even categorize, but I shall try. These works are part New Age chant, soft jazz, minimalism, sometimes intertwined with strands of whimsy. Track 1, “Braid 1 and leaping song,” is a polyphonic work with a lively rhythm and what appears to be nonsense words. The program notes contain no text, only track listings and twenty low resolution photographs of Monk’s mouth. Track 2 owes much to plainchant but doesn’t appear to be religious. Track 3 is a minimalist piano and synthesizer exercise that ends as abruptly as Track 4 begins, which is a rhythmical foray into group breathing. Track 5 is a pleasantly perplexing bagatelle on cymbals and microphone—only a minute long, but its lack of direction is striking. Track 6 is called Doctor / Patient and consists of a marimba and xylophone accompanying two singers who sigh, grunt, and groan, sometimes in unison, uttering the only word in many convoluted incarnations: “help.” I find it amusing, but others may not catch its oblique satire. Like Thelonius Monk (unrelated), Meredith Monk is highly creative and thoroughly unpredictable. Some of her experiments work; the ones that fall short don’t last long enough to make us reach for the remote. Like the Czech singer Iva Bittova, she is an acquired taste but there is gold in her lopsided melodies. This may be the ideal album to play as party guests arrive so that you can, when they asked who on earth it is, you can reply “Monk” and leave it at that.

--Peter Bates

DANCING ON THE EDGE OF A VOLCANO: Jewish Cabaret Popular and Political Songs 1900-1945--New Budapest Orpheum Society--Cedille 90000 065 (2 CDs, priced as one):

These two discs provide an unusually interesting and almost forgotten piece of cultural history, more valuable as such than for their musical content. The Jewish cabaret grew out of the experiences of the Central and Eastern European Jews who migrated from the village shtetls to the Viennese ghetto. Its songs reflect their transition from East to West, from isolated rural life to the cosmopolitan big city. They are presented here in four roughly chronological groups: songs of the transition, poking fun at the nouveau riche and at Jewish stereotypes; popular ballads of love and longing (including two by Schoenberg); political songs (some by Hans Eisler on texts by Brecht); and Zionist and Pioneer Songs (by composers including Weill, Milhaud, and Copland). The first disc offers them in their original language, usually German, and the second in English. The accompaniments to the first groups are of the oom-pah variety; the later groups are musically more interesting, but in any case it’s the words that matter--and they are often funny and always fascinating. The original Budapest Orpheum Society was the leading performer of this material; its reincarnation (including the witty singers) is idiomatic and very effective. Extensive and interesting notes, with texts.

--Alex Morin

Maxim Vengerov, violin
EMI Classics 57384-2 (66 mins.):

This stunning new recital from the 28-year old Siberian virtuoso demonstrates the astounding range of colors that can be achieved by a great modern violinist. Equally remarkable, perhaps, it shows Vengerov achieving his wizardry not only on the splendid “Kreutzer” Stradivari of 1727 (what we would call a modern instrument because of its reworking to be able to play at modern pitch), but also, for Shchedrin’s arrangement of Bach’s D Minor Toccata and Fugue, on a 18th-century fiddle by Carlo Landolfi restored by Nahum Tukh to its original Baroque specifications.

The recital begins with the Solo Sonatas 2-5 by Eugène Ysaÿe (1858-1931), inspired by the composer’s hearing Joseph Szigeti perform Bach, and dedicated to four great violinists: Jacques Thibaud, George Enesco, Fritz Kreisler and the ill-fated Spanish virtuoso Manuel Quiroga. These extraordinary, highly sophisticated exercises in musical portraiture are far more modern than their date might imply. The Second Sonata, for example, begins with a quotation from Bach’s E Major Partita and uses the Dies irae plainchant, in various guises, throughout all four movements.

In Shchedrin’s 15-minute Echo Sonata, composed in recognition of the tercentenary of Bach’s birth in 1985, Vengerov turns from the extrovert, almost schizophrenic mood of the Ysaÿe into a deeply reflective reverie in what is no less technically demanding music. As if acknowledging the shadow cast over all solo violin music by Bach, the penultimate work on the recital is Shchedrin’s outrageously successful arrangement of the Bach, which shows Vengerov, almost in denial of the music’s dramatic stance, playing more and more within himself. The recording ends with a encore, Shchedrin’s delightful Balalaika, taken from a live London concert, played entirely pizzicato. Very excellent!

The sound throughout captures the bite of the strings, Vengerov’s soaring lyricism and, most important, the infinitely varied timbre of the instruments. Recorded, aside from the encore, in Potton Hall, Suffolk, it is a bit close but should serve well to demonstrate the best audio systems.

-- Laurence Vittes

BEETHOVEN: Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 61; Romances in G, Op. 40 and in F, Op. 50
Anne-Sophie Mutter, violin
Kurt Masur conducts New York Philharmonic

DGG 289 471 349-2 65:05 (Distrib. Universal):

Recorded live at Avery Fisher Hall in May, 2002, this inscription marks Anne-Sophie Mutter's second major commercial impression of the Beethoven, having played it with Herbert von Karajan, who acted as her mentor for the piece in 1980. Mutter also joins a relatively small coterie of women who have played the Beethoven for posterity (and my money) with any degree of success: Guila Bustabo, Camilla Wicks, Ida Haendel, Silvia Marcovici, Erica Morini, and Iona Brown. Mutter and Masur take an intimate approach, with Mutter's very tight rein on half steps, extended runs, and the long arches of the first movement. Her diminuendi are a dynamic lesson in themselves. Whatever roughness or coarse humor there exists in the work have been smoothed away; although Mutter tries for a more edgy sound in the Rondo finale. Curiously, I recall this approach in the work Karajan did with Christian Ferras, albeit Ferras added a bit of neurosis peculiarly his own. There is little of pure bravura in the Mutter, but fiddlers will admire her glib finesse in the 16th notes of the finale and the added harmonics to the coda's key change. Her cadenzas are by Kreisler, the same favored by another "feminine" performance of the Beethoven from Oistrakh and Cluytens, which is high company, indeed. The two Romances merely confirm Mutter's suave temperament and easy command of her chosen instrument. DGG sonics are nicely balanced, and the interplay between Mutter and tympanist Roland Kohloff in the Concerto is well defined.

--Gary Lemco

SCHUBERT: Die schöne Müllerin, D. 795
Matthias Goerne, baritone; Eric Schneider, piano
Decca 470 025-2 (72 mins.)

If you judge Lieder singers of the baritone persuasion by whether they can sing sweet and low without becoming sepulchral, and handle the heavy stuff without becoming unwieldy or overbearing, Matthias Goerne's ability to maintain vocal focus under these trying conditions is as close to definitive as we are likely to get. And while, interpretively, he may not quite have the weight and gravity of Hans Hotter's fabled interpretations for Deutsche Grammophon (due for release next month in a 3-CD limited edition set), Goerne creates a undercurrent of such convincing if subtle instability, and laces it with colors so black and deep, that the effect would be devastating were it not for the redeeming beauty of the music.

The result is a performance that reveals the emotional complexity of Schubert's response to Wilhelm Müller's poetry without losing the sense of great vocal beauty. When Goerne reaches the tragic climax of "Trockne Blumen" (Withered Flowers), he is not just singing notes, he is reflecting the desolation that the composer himself must have felt (it was during the time of composition that Schubert developed the first symptoms of the syphilis that was, in those days, his likely death sentence).

A large part of the success of this performance is due to pianist Eric Schneider who not only plays poetically throughout but phrases with an uncanny feeling for expansion and the profound effect of silence. The beautiful recording, made in the Snape Maltings Concert Hall, captures the dimensions of Goerne's voice and the lovely sound of Schneider's Steinway with warmth and clarity. However, as the balance is slightly in favor of the piano, finding the best volume for your equipment and listening room will be of critical importance: too low and you will miss the extraordinary things Goerne and Schneider are doing, too high and you might find the effect unnatural and overpowering. Richard Wigmore's fine program notes will draw even the experienced listener deeper into the experience.

-- Laurence Vittes

GLIERE: Il’Ya Murometz Symphony No. 3 - London Symphony Orch./Leon Botstein - Telarc CD-80609:

I remember first hearing this amazingly programmatic symphony in the mono two-LP version on Westminster conducted by Hermann Scherchen. A widescreen epic spectacular in sound, the four movement work tells the story of the 10th-century knight from Kiev and his sidekick Svyatogor. They fought the Mongol hordes and accomplished other heroic deeds, including beheading a supernatural creature called Solovei and thus saving Prince Vladimir. The first widescreen color film in the USSR in the late 50s was a re-telling of this favorite old Russian legend, with Solovei becoming a triple headed dragon. And what a big finish for both the symphony and Ilya - how many heroic tales end with the hero being turned to stone, I ask you? Stokowski later recorded a spectacular version in stereo but its epic length was seriously cut to fit a single LP. Botstein is a busy international conductor and music historian as well as president of New York’s Bard College. His version seems to be full length and it’s the most spectacular I’ve yet heard. The dynamic range is astounding, as are the details of the Rimsky-Korsakovian orchestrations. It’s fun to pick out the variations on the various characters and events’ themes, used in Wagnerian style. This one will surely be later issued in a SACD version by Telarc, but the 44.1 bit-mapped reduction from the original DSD masters is so good it will only seem inferior when the hi-res version is released.

- John Sunier

Massed strings both Baroque and Brasileiras on the next two CDs...
VIVALDI - Concert for the Prince of Poland - Sinfonia on G Major, Violin Concertos in E Flat Major & C Major, Concertos in D Minor, A Major & C Major - The Academy of Ancient Music/Andrew Manze - Harmonia Mundi HMX 2907230:

With so much Vivaldi concerto material out there it’s a real achievement to offer another CD of the prolific composer that immediately stands out - this one does. Originally released six years ago, it’s been repackaged together with a Harmonia Mundi catalog and a slipcase. The string reproduction is unusually good for a 44.1 CD; perhaps the reason for the reissue is a sonic upgrade in re-mastering. The special program attempts to recreate a unique concert given in 1740 in Venice for the visiting son of the King of Poland. Venice, already the extravagant showplace of Europe, pulled out all the stops to provide a musical extravaganza.

The main dish was a stage work by a now-unknown composer, but the Red Priest offered four concertos as entractes which have been preserved in a manuscript in Vivaldi’s own hand. Manze has filled out the program with an introductory sinfonia in G Major and two more concertos from Vivaldi’s Opus 8, including the very programmatic and familiar “Tempest at Sea.” The closing Concerto RV 558 is described in the note booklet as a veritable Noah’s Ark, with pairs of mandolins, chalumeaux, theorbos, recorders, violins imitating a contrabass-sized instrument, and a single cello. Audiences in Venice must have wondered at the origin of some of these unusual sounds, since all the girls in the orphanage ensemble where Vivaldi presided were hidden behind a screen to prevent men in the audience from ogling the cute ones for prospective wives! All the works are performed with verve and spirit and the clean recorded sound enhances the experience. This is a Vivaldi collection with a minimum of snore appeal.

- John Sunier

South American Getaway - The 12 Cellists of the Berlin Philharmonic with Juliane Banse, soprano - EMI Classics 5 56981 2:

This is a release of two years ago which I somehow missed and wanted to remedy that. The unique cello section of the Berlin Philharmonic is a musical treasures - bringing us the wonderful sound of most music lovers’ favorite stringed instrument in spades. The ensemble has turned out some of the finest crossover albums in the classical arena, and this one is no exception. (I wonder what Karajan thought of this group, which first came together in l974 to perform an avantgarde work for 12 cellos and ended up becoming an on-going group doing much lighter music. They seem so at odds with everything the late conductor represented!) They delve here into the rich and captivating sound of music from South America and especially the tango. Villa-Lobos and Piazzolla are the primary composers represented, along with works of Jorge Ben, Chabuca Granda (a big furry alien?), Horacio Salgan and even the closing title tune by Burt Bacharach! The fine voice of soprano Banse is heard in the complete Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 - originally written for an orchestra of cellos - and also in a song by Piazzolla. I hope EMI is recording the 12 Cellists in multichannel for a future hi-res disc release - they would be a trippy surround experience!

- John Sunier

PÄRT: Orient Occident = Wallfahrtslied (Pilgrims’ Song); Orient & Occident; Como cierva sedienta--Tönu Kaljuste, cond/Swedish Radio Symphony/Swedish Radio Choir--ECM 289 472080

If you are familiar with other works by Arvo Pärt, you will know what to expect from these three pieces. Wallfahrtsied (1984) is scored for men’s choir and string orchestra, Orient & Occident (2000) for string orchestra, and Como cierva sedienta (1998, based on psalms 42 and 43 in the Greek Orthodox liturgy) for women’s choir and orchestra. As always, they are long-lined, monophonic, austere, and deeply religious in feeling, with a good deal of repetition of orchestral figures. I find them monotonous and rather boring, but I’m sure there are others who will take pleasure in sitting back and letting this serene music wash over them. The sound is excellent, and Kaljuste and his Swedish forces do a very good job. The 60-page program booklet provides texts and perhaps more information and analysis than this rather simple music can bear. I guess it’s a matter of taste; if you’re fond of medieval chant and the music of Gorecki and Tavener, you’ll enjoy this too.

--Alex Morin

On to Part 2 (conclusion) of CLASSICAL for this month

Return to the Home Page for this month

Back to Top of This Page

To Index of CD Reviews for month

Send Your Comments to AUDIOPHILE AUDITION!