Pt. 1 of 3 • May 2003

BIZET: Carmen - Angela Gheorghiu (Carmen), Roberto Alagna (Don José), Inva Mula (Micaëla), Thomas Hampson (Escamillo), Elizabeth Vidal (Frasquita), Isabelle Cals (Mercédès). La Lauzeta (children’s chorus of Toulouse), Choeur “Les Élements,” Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse / Michel Plasson. - EMI 57434-2 (3 CDs):

If you’re in the market for a new Carmen using the standard Guiraud performing editon, this one will fit the bill, especially if you like your operatic opulence with a convincingly human touch to it and a deft French sense of storytelling. Conducted by Michel Plasson with lyrical elegance, and with an unusually deep cast headed by opera’s hottest young married couple, Angela Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna, this is a very strong contender for top honors.

Gheorghiu is a very seductive Carmen, even if a bit mature sounding for such a fiery role. Alagna, singing in beautiful French, is ardent and high- flying as he should be. Inva Mula is quite spectacular as the doe-eyed Micaëla, as emotionally sympathetic and vocally splendid a performance as I can recall. The outstanding Toulouse orchestra sports velvety strings and woodwinds colored like French wines (check out the woody bassoons!). Plasson brings a rare sophistication to the score and only the less then white-hot dénouement at the end lets the dramatic side down.

The sound, captured in the Halle aux Grains hall in Toulouse, where the orchestra gives its concerts, presents a spacious, utterly natural soundstage, an ideal example of how to record an opera. The liner notes are skimpy but serviceable. There is a complete libretto with English translation.

The grandest recording of this score remains the 1963 version conducted by Herbert von Karajan with Leontyne Price, Franco Corelli, Robert Merrill, Mirella Freni and, perhaps most important, the Vienna Philharmonic. It is sumptuous beyond belief, hyper-produced by John Culshaw in larger-than life sound completely opposite to that of the new EMI, and not very French. If and when Naxos releases in the U.S. the classic 1950 version conducted by André Cluytens, that will give you an idea of how sexy the opera can sound when sung in idiomatic French. Whether you know the language, it makes all the difference, despite the indifferent sound. But don’t pass up the opportunity to check this out. Even if you know Carmen well, and have several versions, you will be surprised by the enormous punch this one packs. Purchase Here

-Laurence Vittes

SONGS OF DEBUSSY AND MOZART: Beau soir, Clair de lune, Pierrot, Apparition, Pantomime, Fêtes galantes/1er livre, Ariettes oubliées (Debussy); Dans un bois solitaire, Oiseaux si tous les ans, Warnung, Der Zauberer, Das Veilchen, Sehnsucht nach dem Frühlinge, Als Luise die Briefe ihres untreuen Liebhabers verbrannte, Abendempfindung (Mozart). Julian Banse, soprano; András Schiff, piano – ECM New Series 1772 (60 mins.):

What a great idea: to juxtapose Debussy and Mozart in a way that will seduce listeners into a deeper understanding of how creativity works its magic while blurring the musical and aesthetic lines between the two composers. No one will ever have any doubt about which composer they are listening to, but I imagine that few will stop to think. The songs are about emotion and vulnerability and exaltation and love. And if you have already fallen in love with the ecstasy of Debussy’s songs, as so many have, you have a surprise in store with the intensity of Mozart’s lyrical sophistication and power.

The young German soprano Julian Banse has recorded Mendelssohn's with Ashkenazy, Berg with Abbado and the Vienna Philharmonic, and Mahler's Symphony No. 4 with Boulez and the Cleveland Orchestra. Her beautiful voice has a wonderful range and freedom from strain. Her Debussy is miraculously precise and her Mozart warm. Schiff is the ideal collaborator in this repertoire, bringing a crystalline focus while suffusing the music with radiance.

The gorgeous recording, clear and airy and with just the right touch of ambience, was made in the recently renovated Reistadel concert hall in the historic Count Palatine city of Neumarkt, situated between Nuremberg and Regensburg. Seating only 400, the hall’s excellent acoustics make it a frequently used location for CD productions (the Takacs Quartet have recorded Schubert there).

To cap off a most refreshing release, Jacques Drillon contributes a lengthy essay titled “Mozart, Debussy and the Law” in which he presents a slightly puzzling context and then seasons it with a dazzling series of references including Vermeer, Sir John Gielgud and Daddy Bear (a hip translation from the French; we like to say Poppa Bear!). You may not be able to follow the argument but you will be fascinated by the places Drillon takes you.Purchase Here

- Laurence Vittes

DVORAK: Symphony No. 7 in D Minor, Op. 70 - Sir Colin Davis conducting The London Symphony Orchestra - LSO Live LSO0014 40:14 (Distrib. Harmonia Mundi):

Taped in March 2001, this is a fine rendition of Dvorak's D Minor Symphony. It has great technology all over it, with clear delineation of all interior lines, cross rhythms, French horn in the Adagio, flute trills in the Scherzo, diviso strings in the last movement. Davis's conception is lean, articulate, often highly energized in the more aggressive sections of this most Brahmsian of Dvorak's late symphonies. Stylistically, it reminds me a bit of the Leitner inscription made for DGG and issued through American Decca back in the late 1950's. So, with all this spit and polish, why won't anybody buy this disc? Because at merely 40 minutes, it is missing a full half hour of programming. Has the LSO nothing in the vaults that would have filled out this disc? Please. Purchase Here

--Gary Lemco

Dream of the Orient - Works by MOZART, GLUCK, KRAUS, SUSMAYR, AGA, GIRAY & TRADITIONAL - Concerto Köln/Werner Ehrhardt & Sarband/Vladimir Ivanoff - Archiv 474 193-2:

Now here’s a crossover effort of the best possible sort - one that brings together not only different musical cultures but also different periods in music history and different cultures in general - so valuable in these times of heavy focus on the Middle East. The title comes from the European and Western fascination with the Orient, which started in the time of Marco Polo. In this case the focus is more specifically on Turkey and its musical culture. One of the two instrumental ensembles here - Sarband - is described as a Turco-German group founded to demonstrate the links between European music and the musical cultures of Islam and the Jews. The Cologne ensemble specializes in 18th and early 19th century music, using period instruments.

Both groups learned a great deal from their collaborations in performing not only classical works influenced by the exotic sounds of Turkish music, but also genuine Turkish works. The European performers played everything too precisely and at first the pieces didn’t flow as they should in oriental music. The Turkish players had a more relaxed idea about tempo as well and couldn’t understand having to stop playing for whole bars - which didn’t happen in Turkish music. Some of the selections here feature just one ensemble or the other, and others are the collaborations. Joseph Martin Kraus is well-represented; there are eight short ballet excerpts from his Turkish opera Soliman II. In Sussmayr’s Turkish Sinfonia, the musical battles between the European orchestra and the Turkish “janissary” percussion are staged in the first three short movements, but in the last movement the main orchestra seizes control. A thoroughly fascinating musical journey! Purchase Here

- John Sunier

Happy Birthday = SCHNITTKE: Polka; HEIDRICH: Happy Birthday Variations; KAKHIDZE: Blitz Fantasy; GHYS-SERVAIS: Variations brillantes et concertantes on God Save the King; TCHAIKOVSKY; Elegy; BOR: McMozart’s ein kleine bricht Moonlicht nicht Musik; WAXMAN: Auld Lang Syne Variations; KUPKOVIC: Souvenir - Gidon Kremer & Kremerata Baltica - Nonesuch 79657-2:

I somehow missed this one last year and I don’[t want readers to miss it. Kremer has come up with some highly original album ideas in recent years but I think this is his best yet. He says in his notes, “My intention has always been to awaken the listener by a kind of shock to the senses, which, in this case, is a humorous one; to make him or her aware that music is able to not only glide easily on the surface of our senses, but also permeate more deeply, enriching us with emotions, fantasies, laughter and insights.” He also admits to his use of opposing ideas here as an ironic statement against the trend of crossover albums made for no other reason than the promise of profit. Bravo to that!

February 2002 was the fifth birthday of Kremer’s chamber orchestra made up of young musicians from the three Baltic States. So what have we got in the Kremerata Baltica’s birthday gift to itself? At first it seems just a collection of encores involving familiar themes such as Happy Birthday, Auld Lang Syne or a theme from Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik. But it is much more than that. It teases the encore genre with a highly developed sense of musical humor that, as the notes say, “nudges us our of our listening rut.” A couple of my favorites were the Blitz Fantasy by Kakhidze, which combines his interest in Georgian folklore with a love of jazz and is done in a very non-academic style; and the Franz Waxman (yes, the Hollywood composer) tidbit created for a New Year’s party in LA in l947, which is a dream in which Shostakovich and Prokofiev muse about Mozart and Beethoven. Actually Mozart’s familiar melody from Eine kleine Nachtmusik is not heard in the work by “Teddy Bor;” as the title nicht Musik would indicate. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

ELGAR: Organ Sonata in G Major Op. 28; Enigma Variations (transcribed for organ by Keith John) - Keith John at organ of The Temple Church, London - Hyperion CDA67363:

The Organ Sonata is such a major four-movement work, of a half-hour length, that the publishers commissioned an orchestration of it, calling it Elgar’s Symphony No. 0. There’s much noble-sounding music here, and plenty of counterpoint - which the composer loved so much he played something from Bach’s “48” on a daily basis. But the longer transcription of Elgar’s trademark Enigma Variations is the main interest here. It’s always interesting to hear a familiar work in a different setting entirely but with most of the same notes. This version is actually closer to what first existed during the variation’s birth - Elgar working at his piano and trying out variations on a simple theme, each one describing one of his friends. The name Enigma was never applied by the composer to the work, but others close to him made many enigmatic statements concerning it, including: “The theme is a counterpoint on some well-known melody which is never heard;” “It is so well-known that it is extraordinary that no one has spotted it,” and this mind-boggler: “through and over the whole set another and larger theme ‘goes,’ but is not played.” In his notes organist John talks about an organist’s selection of registration being akin to a composer orchestrating a work from, say, a piano score. His expert choices in presenting Elgar’s piece seem to point up the variation techniques used on the main theme better than hearing the orchestral version. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

DURUFLÉ: Works for Organ and Choir--Thierry Escaich, organ and dir/Cambridge Voices--Calliope 9939 (Distr. By Albany):

Maurice Duruflé (1902-1986) is best known for his serene, gently devotional, and very beautiful Requiem. The pieces on this disk are mostly for solo organ. Many of them sound improvisational and--unlike the Requiem-- consist of big sheets of sound without much melodic content. The choral sections, however, are very lovely. Thierry Escaich succeeded Duruflé as organist at Saint-Étienne-du-Mont in Paris (where this recording was made), and, during his years of study at Cambridge University, formed the 16-voice Cambridge Singers. He plays very well, the choir sings sweetly, and the recording is aided by excellent sound. I don’t find it the music very interesting, but then I’m not an organ enthusiast. It should have considerable appeal to those who are. Purchase Here

--Alex Morin

GRAUPNER: Instrumental and Vocal Music--Ingrid Schmithüsen, sop/Genevieve Soly, dir/L’Ensemble des Idées heureusese--Analekta Fl 2 3162 (Dist. By Naxos):

Christoph Graupner (1683-1760) has been overshadowed by his great contemporaries, Bach, Telemann, and Handel; I think deservedly so, though he gets nearly four full columns in New Grove. He spent most of his life in Darmstadt, where he composed prolifically and built an excellent orchestra. His compositions are conservative and not very interesting. An earlier volume from Genevieve Soly offered some of his keyboard music; this disc contains one of his 1418 cantatas (Ach Gott und Herr), one of his 50 Vivaldian chamber concertos, one of his sonatas da chiesa, and excerpts from one of his 11 operas, Dido, Königin von Carthago. Ingrid Schmithüsen sings the cantata and the opera excerpts in a white voice, not always exactly on pitch, and without much expression, and the Ensemble doesn’t play with great spirit or skill. However, this music is worth hearing at least once for no other reason than to lend reality to an almost forgotten name.Purchase Here
--Alex Morin

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