CLASSICAL CDs   Pt. 1 - October 2001

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Classic Yo-Yo - Yo-Yo Ma - Sony Classical SK 89677:

Ma is not only one of the most beloved cellists performing today, he is one of the most beloved of living musicians. He has a wonderful connection with his audiences and colleagues, and he loves to play in ensembles as well as in the solo spotlight. His musical explorations lead him into some "crossover" areas - and that in the best sense of the term. Music of other traditions such as folk are one of his interests, and his participation in Appalachian fiddle music has been recently heard. It is sampled as some of the 16 tracks in this mostly reissued collection. There are however three brand new tracks, including a fiery version of Piazzolla's Fear Tango and accompanying a vocalist in the hymn Simple Gifts. The album opens with the Prelude from Bach's First Suite for Unaccompanied Cello. Yo has been playing that one since the age of 4 and it is the start of his recently acclaimed set of all six Bach Cello Suites. The last movement from Faure's Quartet in G Minor shows Ma's work in a chamber ensemble, and there is also a theme from the film score for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, for which Ma played the solo cello part. His version of Rachmaninoff's lovely Vocalise with Bobby McFerrin doing the vocalizing is among the CD's many high points.

- John Sunier

IMPRESSIONS OF FRENCH MUSIC. Debussy: Festivals from Nocturnes. Satie: Gymnopedie No. 3. Ravel: La Valse. Debussy: Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. Roussel: Bacchus and Ariane, Suite No. 2. Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra/Jo Ann Falletta, conductor - Issued directly by Buffalo Philharmonic

This recording was made to accompany a special exhibition "The Triumph of French Painting" at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo in November, 2001. It is a pleasant introduction to impressionistic French masterpieces that clearly demonstrates how brilliantly second tier American orchestras perform today. It's also a very well recorded CD with an excellent balance between the detail this repertoire demands and the sense of space that makes a great recording realistic to the concert hall experience.

But if you're looking for thrilling versions of these works, look elsewhere. Falletta doesn't go for the adrenalin pumping crescendos that other conductors wring out of these works. Tempos are well judged, allowing the details to emerge with shimmering clarity. In an age of speeded up tempos that reflect our anxiety-ridden world, this CD was pleasantly relaxing. For example, La Valse dances at a steady but slower pace than most. The result is a stately ball that steadily gathers frenzy as the night continues. And the Debussy Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun perfectly captures the mood of veiled suggestion of this masterpiece. Highly recommended.

- Robert Moon

MENDELSSOHN: Complete works for Violin and Piano. Nomus Duo. Naxos 8.554725:

Although he only lived until age 38, Felix Mendelssohn (1809-47) started composing while in his teens. The precocious and delectable String Symphonies were written when he was only 14. Two of the Violin Sonatas on this disc were written at age 14 (F major, 1820) and 17 (F minor, Op. 4). The latter Sonata is rather somber in character in its first two movements, with an adagio that's amazingly soulful for a teenager. The F minor Sonata frames two lighthearted movements with a contemplative adagio.

The major discovery of this CD is the F major sonata of 1838. It was composed in the Mendelssohn's prime, around the time of the great E minor Violin Concerto. But he withheld it from publication and it was rediscovered by Yehudi Menuhin in 1953. It's distinguished by a gorgeous slow movement and a rollicking finale. The disc is rounded out by five short, early works. The Nomus Duo (Icelandic pianist Nina-Margret Grimsdottir and Australian violinist Nicolas Milton) perform these works in a lyrical, spirited manner. An inventive disc of significant but little known works of a romantic master.

- Robert Moon

ELGAR: Nursery Suite, Dream Children, In Moonlight, Romance, Sospiri, Serenade, Elegy - English Chamber Orch./Paul Goodwin - Harmonia mundi HMU 907258:

The composer's attempts to recapture the happy memories of his youth in music are the focus of this exquisite program of rarely heard Elgar works. Elgar wrote to a friend that he was "still at heart the dreamy child..." and he even sometimes used in his later works simple themes that he had written down in notebooks when he was a child. The lengthiest of the works, The Nursery Suite, has seven short movements, and his Serenade for Strings is a mini-portrait of the composer as a young man. Several of the works feature prominently the violin, bassoon, flute and harp. Sonics, packaging and notes all rate an A+.

- John Sunier

REYNALDO HAHN: Quintet for Piano and Strings; Quartets in A Major and F Minor - Quator Parisii/Alexander Tharaud, p. - Valois Naive V 4848:

We have here the first recordings ever of three glorious chamber works by a very unjustly neglected composer who was active in Paris around l900. Hahn had many other interests besides music, but his works are first rate, with influences heard from such disparate sources as Mozart, Chabrier and Saint-Saens. The melodic outpouring in these works is affecting, and the sensual tone colors owe something to Faure. The performances of all three works are completely dedicated and fully realized, not thrown off as a run-thru of some obscure works for the sake of expanding the repertory. Both sonics and packaging support the classy presentation in every way, and the jewel-box-alternative of both this and the above CD make them stand out on the shelf and in the hand.

- John Sunier

The violin in two different frameworks =

RICHARD STRAUSS: Concerto for Violin and Orch. In D Minor; Sonata for Violin and Piano in E Flat - Sarah Chang, v./Bavarian Radio Sym. Orch./Wolfgang Sawallisch, piano & cond. - EMI Classics 56870:

Since her Carnegie Hall debut four years ago Sarah Chang has grown into one of the most gifted violinists around today. She is to be commended for refusing to record the same old same old and bringing collectors instead some of the other great music for violin and orchestra. While early works of Strauss and not often heard today, both of these pieces are quite easily identified as coming from the creator of Don Juan and Til Eulenspiegel. There's plenty of virtuosity in the concerto in spite of its predominately lyrical mood. The sonata is equally virtuosic and highly chromatic. This is very striking music expertly played by a striking young performer.

- John Sunier

VIVALDI: The Late Violin Concertos - Giuliano Carmignola, baroque violin/Venice Baroque Orch./Andrea Marcon - Sony Classical ASK 89326:

Another Premiere Recording, and seeing as how it's Vivaldi this will instantly stimulate many collectors to purchase since they don't have to remember exactly which Vivaldi concertos they already own. There six of them and it would be interesting to know just how they came to light now, but there are no notes included. All are in the standard fast/slow/fast three-movement form and they do sound somewhat more complex than many of the previous Vivaldi concertos. A good deal of variety of expression is found within these strictures of structure; there's a similarity to the wide variety of expression found within the 500-odd Scarlatti harpsichord sonatas. Carmignola is a brilliant violinist, and both his style and the Venice ensemble remind me of the hellbent-for-leather approach to Vivaldi and others of Il Guardino Armonico on Teldec, but with a touch more finesse. This is definitely not Vivaldi-to-put-you-to-sleep.

- John Sunier

Mexican Waltzes and Argentine Tangos =

Valses Mexicanos 1900 - Cuarteto Latinoamericano with Miguel Pacheco, psaltry; Victor Flores, double bass; Alberto Cruzprieto, piano - Dorian DOR-93224:

The waltz wasn't and isn't confined to Vienna. In the early 19th century it arrived in Mexico via France. It flourished there in a version slower than in Europe and designed more for listening than dancing. All sorts of struggling composers wrote waltzes, many of them existing only as piano pieces. These were arranged for this chamber ensemble in the style of Mexican salon music of the period. Among the 13 tracks are such hits as Over the Waves and Noche azul; there is a fascinating waltz titled after a now-forgotten Hollywood actress who was tremendously popular in Mexico - Ann Harding. Delightful melodies played with great verve and presented in Dorian's pristine sonics. Another gem in the label's series "Music of Latin American Masters."

- John Sunier

ASTOR PIAZZOLLA: Nacar (Concerto de Nacar, Las Cuatro Estaciones Portenas Variations, Fuga y Misterio, Concierto Para Quinteto, Adios Nonino) - Trio Fundacion/Y Orchesta de Camara Mayo - Times Square/Silva Screen TSQD 9014:

Since his death almost a decade ago now the music of Piazzolla has been performed and recorded more than ever before. This latest entry was a project blessed by his widow and recorded during live performance in Buenos Aires. The Trio Fundacion is made up of bandoneon, piano and cello. The cello had been a part of Piazzolla's music ever since he received a commission from Rostrapovich. The first two works are the major ones on the CDE, both with four movements and much exciting interplay between the soloists and the orchestra. It's a sort of triple concerto in tango style. (Those Puritans who were aghast at the waltz being the first social dance having the couples embrace one another would have had an apoplectic fit over the tango!) The closing selection on the disc is a glorious orchestral version of probably Piazzolla's most glorious piece - Adios Nonino.

- John Sunier

Concertos and symphonies both old ad new =

WEBER: Horn Concertino; Seven Overtures; Symphonies Nos. 1 & 2 - Anthony Halstead, natural horn/The Hanover Band/Roy Goodman - Nimbus Ambisonic NI 7062/3 (2 CDs):

The major attraction here, besides a really good price for a great deal of Weber, is the absolutely astonishing virtuosity of hornist Halstead. I believe this is the only recording of this piece on a natural horn without any valves, as used in Mozart's time. To say it's not easy to get the required pitches without valves is an understatement. Some of the rousing Web should be very familiar to most listeners - Euryanthe, Der Freischutz. Weber's children's piano recital favorite Invitation to the Dance is also heard in its orchestration by Berlioz. The two symphonies are not his greatest works, being written in Classical style when he was only 20, but they sport many good tunes and Romantically theatrical slow movements. In fact, the booklet's author points to Weber as being responsible more than any of his successors for the overall Romantic sound. If you have the proper decoder or at least an L - R ambience unit, the UHJ encoded disc displays a convincing acoustic of the two different halls in which the two CDs were originally recorded. If not and your strictly two-channel system is especially transparent, you may find that the sonic quality here sounds too distantly miked and overly reverberant.

- John Sunier

LORIN MAAZEL: Music for Cello and Orchestra; Music for Flute and Orchestra; Music for Violin and Orchestra - Mstislav Rostropovich, c./James Galway, fl./Lorin Maazel, v./Bavarian Radio Symphony/Maazel (Arthur Post in Violin & Orchestra) - RCA Red Seal 09026-68789-2:

It's always interesting to hear the works of composing conductors (as opposed to composers who occasionally conduct). After all, who would know better what works and what doesn't in orchestration? Maazel is a triple threat, because in addition to being a renowned conductor and respected composer he is also a virtuoso violinist who in the third work performs his own solo part while bringing in a guest conductor. Maazel also wrote the straight-forward and information liner notes about his works. He calls the cello concerto, written especially for Rostropovich, "Dreamscapes." The cello represents an image of beauty that is assailed by the horrors of real life but comes thru in a more humble form at the conclusion. The other two works are connected, both by flirting with serial practices and by the violin concerto being constructed from a germ of nine notes borrowed from the Flute Concerto. This concerto uses a cembal d'amour in the orchestra which weaves thru some of the themes in concert with the violin. While there are no whistleable tunes in either work, the serialization is flexible and lyrical and both are eminently listenable. Maazel's flair for unusual orchestration is shown by the Cadenza section of the Flute Concerto which has a duet for flute and castanets.

- John Sunier

+++++++ QUICK AUDITIONS +++++++

Masses and Glorias a Quatra =

PUCCINI: Mess di gloria; Preludio sinfonico; Crisantemi - Robert Alagna, tenor; Thomas Hampson, baritone/London Sym. Chorus/London Sym./Antonio Pappano - EMI Classics 57159:

VIVALDI: Gloria, Dixit Dominus - soloists/New London Consort/Philip Pickett - Decca 289 458 857-2:

MOZART: Great Mass in C Minor - soloists/Sacqueboutiers de Toulouse/Les Arts Florissants/William Christie - Erato 3984-26093-2:

HANDEL: Gloria; Dixit Dominus - soloists/Royal Academy of Music/Stockholm Bach Choir/Drottningholm Baroque Ensemble/Anders Ohrwall - BIS CD-1235:

The combination of soloists, chorus and orchestra can provide one of the most impressive musical thrills around. Liturgical works such as these are easy to grasp when one becomes even slightly familiar with the Latin texts, which are often similar for all the works. All four of these CDs are glorious and exciting music lovingly performed by all concerned. The Puccini mass is probably the most melodic one ever written - it's full of the opera master's strongly flowing melody and dramatic turns. There are two short fillers - a prelude and Puccini's Chrysantamums for strings - a lovely melody that reminds by of Rachmaninoff's Vocalise.

Vivaldi's Gloria is one of the most genial and celebratory liturgical works of any period and this version of it preserves its lively character. Both it and preceding Dixit Dominu are preceded by short introductory movements. The New London ensemble employs authentic early instruments and everyone is very much on pitch. High recommended.

The C Minor Mass is quite different from Mozart's Requiem. As with that work, it was unfinished and had to be cobbled together from various sources. The forces here are again authentic instrument groups, and William Christie is known for his precise interpretations of early music, making this a satisfying listening experience.

Lastly, in the Handel Gloria we have another world premiere recording, as well as another Dixit Dominus to compare with Vivaldi's. The music for the Gloria actually laid in the Royal Academy of Music in London in several forms for more than a century and only early this year was it identified as Handel's without doubt. So here it is - a thoroughly Handelian work, with the fine soprano Emma Kirkby featured. The accompanying Dixit dominus has Anne Sofie von Otter as the alto soloist.

- John Sunier

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