CLASSICAL CDs,   Pt. 2 - November 2001

BILLY JOEL: Fantasies & Delusions - Music for solo piano - Richard Joo, piano - Sony Classical Columbia CK85397:

Yes, the same pop singer-songwriter Billy Joel, who grew up studying classical piano and whose last record with lyrics came out in l993. Since then he has concentrated on instrumental music in the classical mold. These ten piano pieces are nearly all in the Romantic vein of Schubert and Schumann, sometimes seeming almost to be quoting from them. Some sound close to the very personal Florestan/Eusibius contrasting musical personalities of Robert Schumann. Yet others echo a bit of Beethoven or even Mozart. There are three waltzes, perhaps influenced by Brahms and Chopin. Joel selected a better pianist than himself to record the works and the session was held in Vienna because of the musical/philosophical connections for him. He alludes in his own notes to ghosts or spirits - that there is something in the atmosphere in Vienna that connects one to this sort of music. That connected me with the recordings by Rosemary Brown of some years back who claimed to have a string of famous composers such as Schubert and Beethoven dictate new piano pieces to her from the Beyond. Joel's pieces remind me strongly of Brown's - having many qualities undeniably of the particular composer in question but still sounding like that composer on a rather "off" day. The most original aspect of this CD is the cover art - an accurate imitation of the front of the G. Schirmer piano music collections which every piano student has carried around and struggled with.

- John Sunier


RACHMANINOFF: Symphonic Dances; Etudes-Tableaux; Vocalise - Minnesota Orchestra/Eiji Oue - Reference Recordings HDCD RR-96:

In No. 13 of the long series of fine recordings by Oue and the Minnesota for Reference, one of the loveliest scores of Rachmaninoff here receives a strongly dance-oriented treatment. The muscular and rich string section sounds of the opening movement of the Dances are thrilling to hear in this very dynamic new recording - especially effective with the proper HDCD decoding. Ottorino Respighi skillfully orchestrated the five Rachmaninoff piano pieces which make up the Etudes-Tableaux. Rachmaninoff revealed to him the specific "picture-studies" he had in mind, but though attractive as abstract music these are not of the programmatic quality of a more famous transcriptions: Ravel's of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. The recordings were made in Minneapolis' Orchestra Hall just last June, using 176.4 KHz/24 bit PCM and a multichannel pickup. The multichannel version will later be released on DVD-A and possibly also SACD.

- John Sunier

After Mozart - Gidon Kremer & Kremerata Baltica - Nonesuch 79633-2:

Violinist Kremer always comes up with new appoaches to classical albums, as in this one - his third Nonesuch release with his string orchestra. The very unusual program brings together works of both Mozart and his father Leopold, sandwiched between modern-day works inspired by Mozart - including works of Schnittke, Silvestrov and Raskatov. Mozart's Eine kleine nachtmusik and Serenata Notturna receive fresh and sparkling interpretations from the Kremerata. Most fun of the contemporary works is Moz-Art a la Haydn by Schnittke. It incorporates a section of Haydn's Toy Symphony with creative modern sound effects for the noise-maker portions - including raspberry noise-makers, an electric parrot and telephone sounds.

- John Sunier


HANDEL: Complete Violin Sonatas--Andrew Manze, violin/Richard Egarr, harpsichord-- Harmonia Mundi 907259:

The "early music" movement has come a long way when it can produce an artist like Andrew Manze. This remarkable British violinist plays a wide range of works from the Baroque era and earlier with impeccable intonation and uninhibited expressive freedom. Always idiomatic, his zest and imagination infuse whatever he takes on. Here he and his equally skillful partner Richard Egarr offer Handel's "complete" violin sonatas, including six of those published in 1730 as Opus 1, plus two others and two sonata movements. There is a lot of confusion about Handel's solo violin music, but these are the pieces most probably written by the master himself, for the violin or for other instruments, plus two that are at least very good imitations of his work. They are small gems, displaying all his exuberant melodic gifts and depth of feeling, and Manze plays them superbly, in excellent sound. This is music to be treasured, and so are these performances.

--Alex Morin

GIROLAMO FRESCOBALDI: Tocate, Partite, Capricci, and Other Works for Harpsichord. Louis Bagger, harpsichord. Titanic Ti-259:

"How do you like your Frescobaldi?" asked the Hatter. "Al fresco, where the notes patter like warm rain on bare flesh? Or all'interno, where they hover discretely and shimmer like chandeliers?" "Neither sounds like too much fun," said Alice. "That depends," said the Hatter, "on how ­ or if -- you button your collar."

When I first heard Louis Bagger play these Frescobaldi keyboard pieces, I thought his approach was rather dry. Academic even. His instrument, a 1969 piece modeled after a 1600 instrument, seems to lack resonance because of its "hollow wrest-plank." I'll stick with my Pierre Hantai version (Astree E 8585), with its close miking and plump tones. After several listenings I had second thoughts. Bagger's approach seems utterly faithful to the text, expressive when needed, but rarely showy. His trills can be delightful but are never unexpected. Performers like Hantai appear more volatile, performing at such a high level of intensity that you can almost see arms flailing above the instrument. Both harpsichordists play the famous "Partite Sopra Ruggiero," a set of intricate variations, "each separate with its own tempo and character" (from Bagger's notes). Bagger leaps right into them, eschewing the moody introduction that Hantai favors. Bagger's vivacious approach underscores the dance character of these pieces and when he drops the tempo, it rarely falls below adagio and not for long. His toccata performance benefits from his instrument's odd tone, with its unusually fast decay rate and prominent midtones. However, there is much to be said for Hantai's approach, which gravitates toward the idiosyncratic realm of Glenn Gould. There are more sensuous pauses and pensive gulfs between his allegrettos and adagios. Bagger is a sold craftsman and delivers the product with the relish of an eager scholar. Perhaps how you gravitate toward his approach depends more on your sensibility than his.

--Peter Bates

DONIZETTI: Rosmonda D'inghilterra (excerpts)--Renée Fleming, sop/Nelly Miricioiu, sop/Diana Montague, mezzo/Bruce Ford, tenor /Alastair Miles, bass/David Parry, cond/Philharmonia Orchestra--Opera Rara 214:

Rosmonda was received unenthusiastically at its premiere in Florence in 1834 and then disappeared from the repertory. The libretto by Felice Romani is the usual lurid fantasy on English history, this one telling the story of the hatred of Leonora (Eleanor of Aquitaine), wife of Enrico (Henry II) for his mistress Rosamond Clifford, whom she kills at the end; subplots along the way involve Arturo, a page who loves Rosmonda, and her scandalized father. It allows plenty of opportunity for exploring character relationships and dramatic confrontations among them, and it's mature Donizetti, full of striking music and interesting people, and is beautifully orchestrated.

Apparently this 1994 production was Renée Fleming's first complete opera recording, but this disc contains only selections, and Opera Rara has botched their presentation. Their artistic director, Patric Schmid, for some reason saw fit to rearrange their sequence, he says to present them "to the best possible musical effect", but there's no excuse for moving the climactic final scene to the middle of the disc, thus destroying the story line and the development of the characters. A brief synopsis is provided but no text, and the notes aren't very informative. However, it's redeemed by the singers, who are superb. Fleming is brilliant in the title role, Miricioiu is a worthy foil as Leonora, and Ford's clear tenor rings out nobly; Miles and Montague handle the subsidiary roles effectively. All of them have beautiful voices and provide apt characterizations. The complete opera seems to be available on another Opera Rara release, and you'd do much better to pay for the additional disc, but if you're short of time and money, the singers alone make this one useful.

--Alex Morin

VIOLA SONATAS by Clarke, Vieuxtemps, and Enescu--Barbara Westphal, viola/Jeffrey Swann, piano--Bridge 9109:

The viola is the scorned middle child of the string family; it rarely appears in a solo role and is the butt of more bad jokes than any other instrument (e.g., "How can you tell when a violist is playing out of tune? The bow is moving"). In the late 18th century it became an essential component of chamber music, and early in the 19th, beginning with Berlioz's Harold in Italy, it was occasionally heard on the concert stage, but such appearances still remain rare compared to those for the violin. The three works on this disc exploit its dusky contralto voice effectively and attractively.

The English composer Rebecca Clarke is almost forgotten; her name doesn't even appear in the 1980 edition of New Grove, though it does turn up in the 2001 revision. She was a proficient violist and moved to the US in 1916, where her Viola Sonata shared first prize with a work by Bloch in a 1919 competition sponsored by the great patron Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge. Though loosely structured and tending to meander a bit, with perhaps too many ideas appearing and disappearing, it's an engaging work, late Romantic in style with considerable Impressionist influences and quite distinctive in content. Vieuxtemps was one of the great virtuoso violinists, and his Viola Sonata, written in 1863, is elegant and pleasingly tuneful, and the two sections of Enescu's Concertpiece--an apprentice work of 1906--are playful and melodic and very French in their lucidity. Westphal and Swann are virtuosos on their instruments. They play together well, understanding each other and the music, and the result is an unusually interesting disc of rarely heard and very appealing music.

--Alex Morin

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