CLASSICAL CDs   Pt. 1 - September 2001

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DVORAK: String Quartets Op.105 (13) and Op. 106 (14). Melos Quartet. Harmonia Mundi 901709:

Superb melodist that Dvorak was, he was never high on my list of "great" composers. For me, emotional depth and harmonic complexity is missing. However, this recording has forced me to take a second look at my biases. These are the final two quartets that Dvorak composed, works that aren't nearly as well known as the symphonies or the quartet that preceeded this, number 12 "American." Dvorak was in his early fifties and just had returned from his triumphal American trip. These works contain a sense of melancholy and profundity and harmonic richness that qualify them as late masterpieces. Listen to the opening of Op. 105 and you'll hear the streak of introspection that courses throughout the first movement. But those looking for the slovakian melodies that justify Dvorak's popularity need not despair for both of these compositions contain them in abundance. The Melos Quartet's interpretations are beautifully judged ­ rich and lyrical. They play with a sense of nostalgia without slipping into sentimentality. The sound matches their interpretations perfectly ­ luxurious and sensuous without losing any clarity. If you are unfamiliar with these wonderful quartets, this CD is a great opportunity to get to know them. You won't regret it.

- Robert Moon

HOVHANESS: Sonata for Harp and Guitar, Op. 374, "Spirit of Trees." Concerto for Harp and String Orchestra, Op. 267. "Upon Enchanted Ground" for Flute, Cello, Giant Tam Tam and Harp, Op. 90, No. 1. Sonata for Harp, Op. 127. "The Garden of Adonis." Suite for Flute and Harp, Op. 245. Yolanda Kondonassis, harp; Frank Hendricks, flute; Herwig Coryn, cello; Patrick De Smet, tam-tam; Eugenia Zuckerman, flute; I Fiamminghi/Rudolph Werthen. Telarc DSD CD-80530:

Alan Hovhaness (1911-2000) was a prolific American composer of Armenian heritage who at age 30 destroyed all his previous works and for the rest of his life wrote easily digestible tonal music inspired and influenced by Asian cultures (Armenian, Indian, Japanese and Chinese). The music on this disc is spiritual in that it's effect is to draw the listener into his/her internal space even though it was inspired by nature (trees, gardens and the ground). On this disc the music is sensuously beautiful with minimal rhythmic complexity. It has an exotic Debussyian flavor to it.

Harpist Yolanda Kondonassis is a superb instrumentalist ­ balancing gossamer textures with brilliant technique. Especially impressive is the beautiful and melodic Sonata for Harp ­ the most memorable work on this CD. The recording is appropriately detailed with superb bass and sense of texture.

- Robert Moon


ENGLISH PIANO CONCERTI. BRITTEN: Piano Concerto in D, Op. 13. RAWSTHORNE: Concerto No. 1 for Piano and Orchestra. IRELAND: Legend for Piano and Orchestra. FINZI: Eclogue for Piano and Strings. Jane Coop, piano. CBC Radio Orchestra/Mario Bernardi. CBC Records SMCD5208:

A cleverly programmed disc of significant early and mid Twentieth Century English piano concertos winningly performed in superb sound. Britten's Piano Concerto is a brilliant example of a diatonic, lyrical and virtuoso work that deserves more performances than it receives. The Decca Sviatoslav Richter recording is a classic, but Jane Coop is a strong advocate in the quiet, lyrical moments and in the finger busting bravura parts. An impressive performance.

Alan Rawsthorne's 1942 First Piano Concerto is another attractive virtuoso concerto that merits more exposure than it gets. The first movement Capriccio abounds with lively and percussive chatter between piano and orchestra. A wistfully lyrical Chaconne is followed by a Tarantella that entertains and romps.

John Ireland's (1879-1962) Legend for Piano and Orchestra (1933) depicts a mythic-like real experience of children that suddenly appear, then disappear during an English picnic outing by the composer. Its varying moods reflect the English pastoral style of Irelands oeuvre.

Gerald Finzi's (1901-56) Eclogue for piano and strings was written as the middle movement of a never finished piano concerto. Its 10 minutes is a moving and nostalgic close to an enterprising disc. Pianist Jane Coop adeptly captures the many moods of these works and executes the music flawlessly. Maestro Bernardi and the CBC Radio Orchestra (the only radio orchestra in North America) expertly accompanies. The balance between piano and orchestra is ideal, as is the clarity and acoustic space around the piano. Highly recommended.

- Robert Moon

FRANZ HAYDN: Complete String Quartets. Angeles String Quartet. Universal/Philips 464 650-2:

My first thoughts when I heard disk one of this 21-disc cycle was "Impressive. I hope this this level of brimming invention continues." In performing these youthful works, the Angeles String Quartet played with such deft skill, there was an abundance of dulcet adagios, energetic allegros, and gracious minuets.

For some reason, Haydn doesn't inspire many complete string quartet collections. There is one produced by the Festetic Quartet on Aracana, which I have not heard. And there are many individual discs, some of which are boldly and joyously played. But nothing prepared me for the utter consistency of this set. The players not only demonstrate a thorough knowledge of these pieces--not difficult like Bartok's but not facile either-they also respect the eras in which they were forged. No attempt is made to create nascent scherzos out of the minuets in the later works (although there is sly humor in Op. 76, No. 2, "Quinten.") The Tokyo Quartet's version of the Opus 76 quartets (Sony SB2K 53522), praised highly several years ago, pales in comparison to the Angeles' interpretations. There may be too much faux Beethoven rumbling around the Tokyo's Opus 76, No. 1: too little difference between successive imitations, too few drops to ppp, too much speed in the Vivaces. Never do you get the sense that the Angeles is trying to impress you with virtuosic plunges or move you to tears with saccharine cantabiles, although both happened to me in their rendition of the Sturm und Drang Opus 20 quartets. They contain passages of quiet warmth, keen doses of hilarity, and yes, nobility. Lots of it.

--Peter Bates

VARIOUS COMPOSERS: Music for the Spanish Kings. Hesperion XX w/Jordi Savall. EMI/Virgin Veritas x2 5 61875 2:

Perhaps like the Renaissance itself, Music for the Spanish Kings begins with a strutting fanfare and ends with a melancholic sigh. Attaining his usual high standards, Jordi Savall has fashioned a poignant and varied musical portrait of the century encompassing the reigns of three Spanish kings: Alphonso I (1442-58), Ferdinand I (1458-94), and Charles V (1516-56).

Montserrat Figueras' rich mezzo-soprano voice carries over half the pieces on the first disc. Her stunning vibrato imparts a troupadour's sadness to the cancions. Her impeccable rhythms carry dance tunes like "Cingari siamo venit's giocare." Her style is so confident, so persuasive she could induce some listeners into fits of swift dancing, uncontrollable foot tapping, or perhaps persistent dreams of whirling campesinos in colorful capes.

As in his many previous CDs, Savall displays unflagging taste in both his composer selections--he elicits the best from over a dozen obscure composers-and in his arrangements. He orchestrates Adrain Willaert's "Vecchie letrose" with snappy percussion, brisk flute, guitar, and Figueras' vivacious voice, It is so infectious it seems to end prematurely, leaving the listener craving more. Perhaps that was Savall's intention, for there is more: the entire second disc. Antonio de Cabezón (1510-66) composed all of these instrumental pieces, but only on keyboard. It was Savall's redoubtable task to decide which ones would be brass ensembles and which would be sweet essays on his charmed viol. Some of Cabezón's pieces for the viol undulate seductively like those of Sainte Colombe, who composed more than a century later. Others coax complex variations (diferencias) from the musicians, like the chivalric "Diferencias sobre 'La dama le demanda,'" play slowly like well-executed foreplay. I wish the CD producers had provided text for the songs, or even instrument listings. But the collection thrives well without them. Joyous and dark, mysterious and brazen, each piece is a panoply of subtle mood shifts.

--Peter Bates

BACH: Three Weimar Cantatas, BWV 182, 12, 172 -The Bach Ensemble

Joshua Rifkin, conductor
Susanne Rydén, soprano
John Elwes, tenor
Steven Rickards, countertenor
Michael Schopper, bass
Dorian Recordings 93231:

In 1714 Bach was an obscure twenty-nine-year-old organist when, appointed Konzertmeister at the Weimar Court, he was instructed to write one cantata per month. The cantatas on this CD, the first three of his Weimar cycle, are modest in both length and composition. Despite their enumeration, they are in chronological order, the first (BWV 182) being written for and performed on Palm Sunday, the second (BWV 12) on the third Sunday after Easter--Bach later reused this in the "Crucifixus" of his B-minor Mass--and the third (BWV 172) for Pentecost. Bach later reworked them in Leipzig by altering them and adding more instrumentation.

This historically informed performance will certainly please the purists who prefer their cantatas in an unadulterated form, played on original instruments as though freshly sprung from the mind of the composer. This performance is spare and delicate rather than passionate, partly because the cantatas' tight composition leaves little room for individuality and personal expression. In keeping with their devotional spirit, the singing is serious, smooth (particularly Rickards's), and straightforward. Some listeners may prefer the revised versions of these cantatas, which are more richly detailed and exuberant (see, for example, the recent review by Peter Bates of the Hänssler edition). But the high-minded, spiritual atmosphere that this performance evokes is never in dispute.

The sound is clear and somewhat resonant, with the voices set front and center and the instruments in the back, producing a semblance of a live recording.

(Curiously, thirty years ago the conductor, Joshua Rifkin, recorded the Baroque Beatles Book--baroque arrangements of Beatles songs, sometimes with direct quotes from Bach and Handel. Unfortunately this recording never came out on CD.)

- Dalia Geffen

HANDEL: Lucrezia; Armida abbandonata; Agrippina condotta a morire--Véronique Gens, sop/Les Basses Réunies--Virgin Veritas 545203:

Véronique Gens has built a considerable reputation on her singing of Baroque operas, and that aside, her recent disc of French mélodies was a delight. So is this release, though "delight" isn't the right word for the laments of those woeful ladies. During Handel's stay in Rome from 1706 to 1710, he wrote over 80 secular cantatas, which won him great acclaim as the "caro Sassone" ("dear Saxon"). These three are unusual in their tragic themes, telling the stories of Lucretia's rape, Armida's abandonment, and Agrippina's dismay at her loss of power to her cruel son Nero. They are complex, intense, dramatic, and highly inventive; even in his early 20s, Handel was pushing the limits of the cantata form, filling it with striking musical metaphors and great zest. Gens's voice is cool, clear, and bright, though without much color; she handles the florid passages easily and accurately, and provides effective characterizations. This is wonderful music, very well sung, and warmly recommended.

--Alex Morin


THE RADIANT VOICE OF BARBARA BONNEY: Arias and songs--Barbara Bonney, sop/various accompanists--Decca 289 468818:

The lyric soprano Barbara Bonney is one of the outstanding singers on the contemporary scene, using her limpid, silvery voice with musical intelligence and beauty in a broad repertory. She describes herself as "A lieder singer who also does opera," and we get both in the 19 selections on this disc, ranging from a Dowland air to the "Pie Jesu" from Andrew Lloyd Webber's Requiem. The 16 different sympathetic and effective accompanists include Ashkenazy on piano in Schumann's "Mondnacht" and Previn and the Vienna Philharmonic in "In trutina" from Carl Orff's Carmina Burana, with other distinguished artists and ensembles in between. Especially notable are Bonney's warm and expressive legato in "Deh vieni non tardar" from Mozart's Magic Flute and the easy grace of "Solveig's Song" from Grieg's Peer Gynt and Strauss's "Morgen." Presumably drawn from Decca's archives, the recordings were made between 1986 and 1999 and the sound is excellent. Bonney is lovely to look at and to hear, and the disc is thoroughly enjoyable from beginning to end.

--Alex Morin

SCHUBERT: Lieder--Ian Bostridge, tenor/Julius Drake, p--EMI 7243 557141:

Since his debut only five years ago, the English lyric tenor Ian Bostridge has established himself as one of our foremost recitalists, with a number of widely acclaimed recordings to his credit. This is his second Schubert lieder disc (the first came in 1996) and offers 21 songs, a few of them familiar but most of them (including six Goethe settings as the centerpiece) less often heard; all of them are very beautiful. Bostridge has an uncommonly sweet voice and an expressive intensity that draws the listener into the songs. Every word and phrase is thoughtfully pointed; occasionally he may be a bit arch, but more generally his musicality and intelligence result in outstanding performances. He is perhaps most effective in the gently floated tones of songs like "Die Götter Griechenlands" and (especially) ""Sei mir gegrüsst", but his rapturous intensity is deeply moving in more passionate lieder like "Geheimes" and "Auf der Riesenkoppe". Julius Drake is a very sympathetic accompanist, and the mutual understanding between singer and pianist is evident throughout. This is wonderful music beautifully sung, and the disc should be cherished by every lover of vocal artistry.

--Alex Morin

MATTHEW LOCKE: Consorts in Two Parts - Masques (Timothy Haig, baroque violin; Elin Soderstrom, bass viol; Olivier Fortin, chamber organ) - Dorian DOR-90300:

Coming from the time of Civil War in England in the 17th century, this music reflects changing styles in music just prior to the Baroque period. Locke's works partake of both the Renaissance style of polyphony and the newer style with vertical harmonies and more emphasis on one melodic line. While most of the pieces are in various dance forms, they show an astounding variety of content - wide leaps, rapid changes of harmony and even some striking dissonances. Some of the 59 separate tracks here are among the shortest pieces one could find anywhere - as little as 26 seconds. The instrumentation of violin, bass and small organ gives a different texture than heard with much early music - a fuller sound than some larger ensembles of all strings. Cleanly-recorded, as with most Dorian releases.

- John Sunier

THE FOOD OF LOVE - Early Instrumental Music of the British Isles - Hesperus - Dorian DOR-90290:

A perfect collection for someone like myself who is not especially a fan of vocal music in the first place, let alone early vocal music. The four members of Hesperus, with their various viols, fiddles, lutes, guitars, theorbos and recorders, make these pieces drawn from both the folk and art cultures come alive. The performers chose pieces for the interest and vitality of their melodies. They feel that as with most folk traditions (and certainly with jazz too) the tunes are much more than just the notes on the page. The 18 tracks ecompass lute pieces, Irish ballads, jigs and other dances, royal galliards, grounds, bagpipe tunes, folk songs and selections from lessons for violin or virginal. There's lots of variety of instrumentation and mood and all are played with great gusto that keeps up the interest of those who may not be heavily into the early music genre.

- John Sunier

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