Pt. 1 of 2 
October 2002

click on any cover to go directly to its review below

SHOSTAKOVICH: String Quartets Nos. 11, 13 and 15 / St. Petersburg String Quartet - Alla Aranovskaya, 1st Violin ; Ilya Teplakov, 2nd Violin; Alexei Koptev, Viola; Leonid Shukaev, Cello - Hyperion CDA67157:

The String Quartets of Dmitri Shostakovich are surely an indispensable part of the literature in the 20th century; judging by the number of recordings appearing in recent years (at least four other labels have their own cycles underway or completed) there's still much to explore in these sometimes dense, complicated works.

This disc represents the fourth installment in Hyperion's cycle, and as with the previous discs, there's much to enjoy within. Many themes resonate throughout Shostakovich's body of work, so much here will greet you with a sense of familiarity. I was particularly impressed with the playing in the quartets nos. 13 and 15; the bowing in the second movement of the number 15 is breathtaking and has a very chilling effect!

I do have a few quibbles with the performances and the recording. Right out of the gate, the string tone of the first violin struck me as somewhat strident. It's really noticeable throughout the recording, and maybe it's just that the recording level was balanced poorly, which is unusual for Hyperion. The cello tone seems a little thin, as well, and the ambient noise level of the venue is really excessive, almost to the point of distraction (my wife, who I sometimes think has tin ears even noticed this). My reference for these works is the recent Emerson Quartet on DG, and while the St. Petersburg playing generally compares favorably with the Emersons, the DG discs just sparkle in comparison; string tones are natural, cello is warm and robust and everything just seems more right.

Repeat listenings bore a more favorable impression on my part; maybe Shostakovich intended the music to sound this way? Anyway, I don't really think you'd go terribly wrong with this cycle, but for a really superlative presentation, by all means check out the Emerson/DG cycle.

-- Tom Gibbs

BARTOK: String Quartets Nos. 1 - 6 / Vertavo String Quartet - Berit Cardas, 1st Violin ; Oyvor Volle, 2nd Violin; Henninge Landaas, Viola; Bjorg Vaernes, Cello - Simax Classics PSC 1197:

Bartok's six String Quartets are central to his creative development as a composer; and though they represent him at his most abstract, they also contain much of the Hungarian folk influences that form the basis for so many of his other works. This disc is unique in that the Vertavo Quartet is comprised of all women, the first as such to record these works.

Like the Shostakovich Quartets, these works are not for the faint of heart; the abstract themes throughout often border on serialism, and may not be everyone's cup of tea. Bartok was probably influenced by Schoenberg somewhat in the direction he took with the String Quartets, but more likely it was Debussy's (whom he greatly admired) freedom of form and less grounded sense of tonality that served as the model. The lyrical qualities of Debussy are not present, but they definitely have the free form that characterized his work.

Another recent set I've listened to extensively and consider near-reference quality is the Hagen Quartet on DG; the sound and performances are superlative. This Simax set equals the DG in all respects; I A/B'd the recordings back and forth repeatedly, and was really surprised at how closely they mirror each other in performance and recorded sound. The Simax set was recorded at a couple of different churches, but they ambiently have very similar acoustics and give a very good sense of the recorded space, with lots of air and a really good image of the individual instruments.

I've never heard anything on the Simax label that wasn't exceptionally well-recorded ­ if you had to choose one set, this one may be your best bet.

-- Tom Gibbs

GYORGY LIGETI: The Ligeti Project, Volume II - Berlin Philharmonic/Jonathan Nott. Teldec 8573-88261-2:

Like the first, this second volume of The Ligeti Project is a winner. It opens with the disturbing Lontano (1967) and closes with the rambunctious Concert Romanesc (1951). The strings of Lontano rustle, insinuate, forbode, threaten, and (unlike Penderecki or Lutaslawski) never develop their sinister implications. Of course it doesn't matter. This music is so wondrous I wished I'd heard it in 1967 under the aura of a black light. Atmospheres (1961), famous for its inclusion in the "descent into Jupiter" sequence of 2001 A Space Odyssey (1968) strikes an equally bizarre pose in the modernist pantheon. I like it better than the film, which I found pretentious then as well as now. Its buzzing violins and jarring sonorities should be required listening for those who forget the paranoia of the Cold War. Apparitions (1959) is a world premier and sounds like a hybrid electronic piece. Its rumblings and crashing may have a high tiring speed for most listeners, but I like listening to it as I clank around in the kitchen. San Francisco Polyphony (1974) is the latest piece. With its false starts and wobbly demi-melodies, it has a rather arch sense of humor. Ligeti's tricks are infectious, like punctuating a placid wispy moment with a tympani crash or contrasting high register violin figures with high-pitched percussion. Perhaps oddest of all is the traditional Concert romanesc that ends the piece. This folk music seems so out of character, but it's good to have it as a reminder of Ligeti's past. Jonathan Nott of the Berlin Philharmonic does a great job on the live and studio recordings of these works. I'm looking forward to hearing further volumes in this series.

--Peter Bates

HANDEL: Nabal -- Maya Boog, sop/Francine van der Heijden, sop/Linda Perillo, sop/Knut Schoch, tenor/Stephen MacLeod, bass/Joachim Carlos Martini, cond/Frankfurt Baroque Orchestra/Junge Kantorei--Naxos 8.555276 (2 Cds):

Nabal  isn't included in the usual list of Handel's operas because, while the music is his, the composition as a whole is not. John Christopher Smith the younger, Handel's copyist in his last years, wrote the recitatives and pasted the rest together from scraps of his master's work. It was presented at Covent Garden twice in 1764, five years after Handel's death, and then disappeared. The libretto by Thomas Morell retells the Biblical story from Samuel of the rich and churlish Nabal, saved from David's attack by his wife Abigail, who becomes one of David's wives when Nabal dies. It doesn't have the psychological penetration or cumulative intensity of Handel's best work, but it contains one lovely aria after another. The cast is excellent; Shoch's tenor sometimes has a somewhat metallic timbre, but he handles the coloratura arias accurately and easily, and the women have lovely voices and sing well throughout. Martini is a good Handelian, and his orchestra and chorus perform with zest. Nabal may not be echt Handel, but it offers a lot of beautiful music and is thoroughly enjoyable. Good notes, good sound, and libretto.

-- Alex Morin.

BARTOK: 44 Duos for 2 Violins/LIGETI: Ballad and Dance/KURTAG: Ligatura-Message to Frances-Marie, Op. 31b - Andras Keller, violin/Janos Pilz, violin - ECM New Series 1729 58:20 (Distrib. Universal):

Two members of the Keller String Quartet collaborate to perform Bartok's 1930-1932 contribution to violin method, the 44 Duos, written at the instigation of Freiburg pedagogue Erich Doflein. Trying to avoid the derogatory status as composing "function-music" a la Hindemith, Bartok created a series of charcteristic folk-miniatures in the tradition of Mendelssohn and Schumann, but still conveying his idiomatic Hungarian ethos. Lasting anywhere from a few seconds (No. 25 Mosquito Dance) to almost three minutes (No. 38 Prelude and Canon), these systematic violin ensembles complement the composer's Mikrocosmos, and they actively engage player and listener in a world of peasant dances, lullabies, wedding songs, antiphons and classical polyphony-as well as controlled, Magyar dissonance-that continue to captivate the imagination.

Both Keller and Pilz are students and devotees of Ligeti and Kurtag, so the entire program has the sense of a "school" of playing. The part-writing calls for all sorts of technical virtuosity at graduated levels, using tremolos, harmonics, double-stopping, all the while figuring punishing, irregular metric units. Following the almost diatonic Serbian Dance (No.45), Ligeti's Violin Duos After a Romanian Song sounds a plaintive recollection of the Hungarian landscape and its often fiery sensibility. Kurtag's Message to Frances-Marie is so quiet and intimate, I am not sure we should be reading it. These 1999 inscriptions are up close and personal.

--Gary Lemco

LA BELE MARIE--Anonymous 4--Harmonia Mundi 907312:

The selections on this disc are 13th-century French songs devoted to the Virgin Mary, reflecting the adoration cult that developed in medieval times. From the Latin liturgy as used in processions or adapted from the songs of the trouvères, they are ardent, varied, and individually beautiful. Anonymous 4 was founded in 1986 "to experiment with the sound of medieval chant and polyphony as sung by higher voices." The four women combine musical, literary, and historical scholarship in a 20th century performing context, and sometimes perform more contemporary works (e.g., by Taverner and Reich). They have lovely voices as soloists and as a group and sing idiomatically, with pure intonation and richness of texture, especially in the interweaving of voices in the group songs. All this chant can become monotonous, but if you just relax and bathe in its sweet simplicity, it will give you considerable pleasure.

--Alex Morin

JOHANNES BRAHMS: Violin Sonatas. Anastasia Khitruk, violin, David Korevcaar, piano. Titanic Ti-260:

Brahms's tantalizingly few violin sonatas provide three high points of late 19th century romantic chamber music. They are engaging in their depth and variety of expression, and also in their sheer density of form. Not a note is wasted. This latest disc is a worthy addition to the recordings currently available. It also differs from the other recordings in notable ways. First, Anastasia Khitruk and David Korevcaar's playing veers toward the dramatic rather than the lyrical (although it has its lyrical moments). The Itzhak Perlman and Vladimir Ashkenazy version (EMI 7 47403 2) is smooth and generously seasoned with legato throughout. It is sweet to listen to. However, Perlman and Ashkenazy miss opportunities to shake up the listeners with Brahms' striking effects, such as the shocking fortissimo chords in Sonata No. 3's Allegro (particularly in the recapitulation).

To their credit, their lyrical approach works better at the end of Sonata No. 2 demi-scherzo than on the Titanic disc. They play the decrescent vivace movement pianissimo so convincingly, the listener believes the piece is settling into sentimental repose. Suddenly a pizzicato bar jumps onstage, so forte it should have woken Beethoven from the dead at the 1886 premier. According to Titanic's annotator Ira Braus, "the tortoise races at the last moment to the finish line." The contrast is more striking on the EMI disc than on this Titanic one. This may be due to the close miking of the Titanic disc, a technique that generally serves these recordings well. Purists may rail at hearing Khitruk's breathing, but so what? Glenn Gould grunts and sings while performing Bach. Think of ambient noise as proof that people, not synthesizers, are performing the work. Imagine the performers' bodies rising and falling as they breathe. I recommend this disc. Both Khitruk and Korevcaar do these works justice. Rather than give us another drawing room of lace and honey, they skip stones of such variety across the musical pond that chattering waves appear and ripple in the mind long afterwards.

--Peter Bates

BEL CANTO - Arias by Bellini. Donizetti, and Rossini--Renée Fleming, sop/Patrick Summers/Orchestra of St. Lukes -- Decca 487101:

Renée Fleming is the leading soprano of our time, as much from lack of competition as from true vocal distinction. She has sung everything from Handel to boogie-woogie, producing clear, round tones with considerable beauty and unfailing charm. She says her first love was the bel canto operas of Bellini, Donizetti, and Rossini, and here she offers arias from two operas by each of them--for the most part, not the most famous ones, but dramatic arias from somewhat less prominent roles. But Fleming is essentially a lyric soprano, and this isn't really her fach; she doesn't have the intensity of Callas or the vocal purity of Sutherland. Her voice and interpretations seem generalized and unfocused, and in this as well as a previous recording, her voice seems tired. She's probably singing too much and in too many different idioms, and she's going to ruin her voice if she keeps this up. That would be a pity, because she's the most attractive presence on the operatic stage these days and her voice is--or was--the best to come along in recent years. I enjoyed the disc in spite of my complaints, and you will too.

--Alex Morin

Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano) at Carnegie Hall - BERG: Sonata, Op. 1/BEETHOVEN: Sonata No. 23 in F Minor, Op. 57 "Appassionata"/LISZT: Legend No. 2 "St. Francis Walking on the Waters"/DEBUSSY: Reflets dans l'eau; Poissons d'or; Etude "Pour les huits doigts"/LIGETI: 3 Etudes/MESSAIEN: No. 11 from Vingt Regards sur L'Enfant Jesus

Teldec 0927-43088-2 75:46 (Distrib. WEA):

Taped December 3, 2001, this recital by Aimard, a pupil of Yvonne Loriod (wife of composer Olivier Messaien), proves he has nimble fingers, especially in the piano's upper register. The Ligeti etudes each exploit brilliantly fleet passagework, sometimes in multiple rhythms played simultaneously, so that Aimard gets to display some real pyrotechnics. He begins with the gloomy, moody and often colorful Berg Sonata, which already pushes Wagnerian chromatic harmony to bitonal limits. After a pulsating, powerful rendition of Beethoven's Op. 57, which has more of Casadesus than of Richter, the "theme" of the recital turns to 'aquarelles' and water-pieces in a bravura tradition: Liszt's second St. Francis Legend and coloristic pieces from Debussy's Images. Aimard's sparkling non-legato and his natural sense of rhythmic-dynamic color may remind some of Michelangeli. His penchant for the moderns, especially his mentor Messaien, is a matter of affection and not merely dexterity. I find this a compelling recital of an artist with several strings in his harp, a maker of colors and character.

--Gary Lemco

RICHAFORT: Requiem, Motets--Paul van Nevel, dir/Huelgas Ensemble--Harmonia Mundi 901730:

The Franco-Flemish composer Jean Richafort (c1480-c1547) was probably a student of Josquin (to whose memory the Requiem on this disc is dedicated) and though his name isn't well-known today, he was greatly admired by his contemporaries. He was associated with the French royal chapel, and a considerable amount of his music remains, almost all in manuscript form. The motets are models of contrapuntal clarity, but they are quite conventional for their time and his writing is less imaginative than Josquin's. Van Nevel and his Huelgas Ensemble are experienced exponents of music of this period and they present it with secure intonation and cool clear voices. I don't find this music particularly interesting, but if you enjoy the melismatic polyphony of the Renaissance, the disc will please you.

--Alex Morin

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