Pt. 1 of 2 
 September 2002

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DARIUS MILHAUD: The Complete String Quartets - Parisii Quartet. Naïve. (5 CDs) AD210:

Like the eighteen string quartets of Brazil's Hector Villa-Lobos, the eighteen quartets of Darius Milhaud have not yet made it into the modern repertoire. What a shame. They are splendid works -- ingenious, entertaining, complex, melodious, graced with Gallic wit. What they are not is wrenching, jarring, poignant, heart-rending, death-obsessed, and folkloric, elements beloved by Shostakovich and Bartok. Some are skilled sound mosaics, like No. 5 as it reveals crevices of counterpoint, or the easy conviviality of No. 6, created for his friend Francis Poulenc when the later complained of No. 5's gravité. The Parisii Quartet lyrically conveys the breezy opening theme as if it were plucked from one of Brahms's mighty three. The second movement has provincial charm, the third an energetic superimposition of two melodies, both in the same key! His last two quartets are notable in the way they reveal the composer's dark edge (but only for a moment!). Listen to the third movement of No. 17 and notice not only the abrupt starts and stops and innate delicacy, but also the complex fugue he spins. However, all this is petits pomme de terres compared to Milhaud's most bizarre quartet stunt. If you listen to No. 14 and No. 15, then the String Octet, you may realize that the composer has achieved a stunning engineering feat. He has combined Quartets Nos. 14 and 15, bar for bar, into a coherent octet! Although the two quartets are intriguing pieces by themselves, their blending forms a stunning canvas. I haven't experienced such waggish mannerism since the day I saw Arcimboldo's Winter, a 16th century painting of a human head comprised wholly of fruit and branches. Did Milhaud create his disturbingly bold work on a dare from his inner imp? Or perhaps he always had a self-challenging nature. "I want to compose eighteen quartets," he told Le Coq Parisien in 1920. Thirty-one years later, he finished his eighteenth and wrote on its final page "eighteen quartets, as promised."

- Peter Bates

MAX REGER: Violin Sonata No. 7 Op. 91; Three Viola Suites Op. 131d - Luigi Alberto Bianchi, Violin/Viola - Dynamic CDS-383:

Max Reger's Violin Sonatas and Viola Suites bear much in common with the violin works of J.S. Bach, though in a more thoroughly modern way; Reger's own writings compare his works to those of the master, and he seems to have modeled much of his musical career after Bach's. And though Bach's contributions were more fundamental in nature to the development of the solo instrument repertory, Reger's works possess enough vitality and individuality to stand on their own; the fluidity of his writing for the stringed instruments is surprising, especially considering that his background was predominantly keyboard-based (piano and organ).

Luigi Alberto Bianchi is a sometimes dizzyingly virtuosic player; in a world where a relative handful of players ever get to bask in the spotlight, there are so many that remain unheralded, and I would truly love to hear more of his distinctive playing (he has at least two other CDs in the catalogue -- definitely need to check those out).

Although this is a 2002 release, the music contained within was recorded in 1977 (Viola Sonatas) and 1992 (Violin Sonata). Don't let the fact that these are older recordings scare you away -- the recorded sound is excellent, and the solo instruments possess great presence and tone. The real reason you need to own this CD is for the Viola Sonatas that are played on a 1595 Amati viola made in Cremona -- the string tone is both beautiful and breathtaking, and the recorded sound is strikingly good. The Violin Sonata (played on violin) is good, but from the opening notes of the Viola Suite No. 1, you can't help but realize that you're listening to a truly exceptional instrument. Even more astonishing is that the instrument was originally of much larger proportions, and was cut-down and reassembled in the 19th century to a more manageable size! Sadly, the viola was stolen from Bianchi in 1980 and never recovered.

My only quibbles technically with the sound are minor; the digital "fade to black" present between some cuts (but not all) is a little distracting -- I guess some record producers just can't seem to engineer around this. And there's a slight "hiccup" in the tape at the beginning of the Viola Suite No. 2, which is forgivable for 20-year old recordings. Highly recommended.

-- Tom Gibbs

MAX REGER: Reger and Romanticism - London Philharmonic Orchestra/Leon Botstein, conductor. Telarc CD-80589:

If you are looking for vast and swelling late romantic themes, try Max Reger. His Four Tone Poems after Arnold Bocklin begins with "Hermit Playing the Violin," a piece so seductive and lush I wish I'd had a version of it to play during college dates. Here is Wagnernerian chromaticism with nary a trace of long-windedness. The second piece, "In the Play of the Waves," is a programmatic piece that approximates the instable and swirling nature of the sea. These four tone poems are not particularly profound or ingenious like the composer's Bachian cello sonatas or as compelling as his clarinet quintet, but their themes are distinctive and entertaining enough. Catherine Wym-Rogers does a decent job singing Reger's orchestration of Holderin's "To Hope," although I find the work's histrionics and plodding pace remove it from Reger's top twenty. The final work, "A Romantic Suite After J. F. Eichendorff," has a bing cherry-like sweetness to it-dark, slightly tart, with marvelous texture. In each of the movements, Reger matched segments to poems by Eichendorff. It is a contemplative work with no harsh edges, although its scherzo contains traces of whimsy and faintly satiric dance fragments. A late work, penned four years before his death, the suite may be the closest Reger came to writing a full blooded symphony. Conductor Leon Botstein weaves in and out of Reger's moods -- such as his flirtations with French impressionism -- with deft skill. This programmatic CD is an excellent introduction to Reger's orchestral works.

--Peter Bates

TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphony No. 4 in F Minor, Op. 36; Francesca da Rimini, Op. 32 - Jose Serebrier conducts Bamberg Symphony - BIS CD-1273 70:20 (Distrib. Qualiton):

Serebrier continues his ambitious Tchaikovsky cycle, which involves recording all the orchestral and concerted works, with this muscular F Minor Symphony (taped in 2001) and Dantesque tone-poem Francesca da Rimini (taped February 2000) with the Bamberg Symphony. Serebrier's approach to Tchaikovsky's "Fate Symphony" is less Herculean and histrionic than some of the famed Romantic interpreters': Koussevitzky, Mravinsky, Lambert. Serebrier tries for degrees of calm and repose amidst the struggles, with touches a la Furtwaengler with winds and tympani. Occasionally, the miking is so low-level that I had to up the volume to hear the interplay. The interior movements have an especially clarity and tenderness: the Andante's extended oboe solo, the quasi-martial middle section, the resigned return of the main melody in the bassoon. The wonderful pizzicati of the Scherzo break in to a joyful peasants' dance. The folkish last movement makes some heroic points. The real whirlwind, literally and musically, is the Francesca. Serebrier, who does his own liner notes, quotes the lines from Inferno as a counterpart to the structure of this graphic tone-poem, wrought in the style of Liszt. That Serebrier gets fire in the blood of his Bambergers is obvious from the outset. The pleading clarinet theme of the central love-episode builds into a passionate frenzy worthy of anything in Stokowski and Koussevitzky. Definitely worth the price of admission.

--Gary Lemco

Violin Masters of the 17th Century - BIBER: Passacaglia in G minor; SCHMELZER: Sonata in D major; WESTHOFF: Six Suites for violin; MATTEIS: Fiveviolin pieces/Elizabeth Wallfisch, Violin - Hyperion CDA 67238:

All of the composers represented on this disc predate the defining work of J.S. Bach, at a time when the violin was just beginning to be used in a solo capacity; previously it was almost exclusively found accompanying a dance or as part of a small consort of musicians. In mid seventeenth century Germany composers began to explore the sonata form extensively; it's probably safe to say that Bach had some awareness of the body of work heard here.

There's little here that compares with the much more technically advanced work of Bach; but taken as an appreciation of the development of the art of the solo instrument, there's still much enjoyable listening. The Biber Passacaglia, written in a minor key is dark and brooding; the Schmelzer Sonata's major key (and its inclusion of several dance movements) gives it a more cheerful, uplifting feel. Both are similar in compositional style; each offers alternatingly sedate passages mixed with flashes of fiery virtuosity. Nicola Matteis' fiery performance style made quite a splash when he came to London in 1670; his five violin pieces offer ample evidence of his flashy technique. The six suites of Westhoff are the only really tiresome listening on the entire disc.

Elizabeth Wallfisch plays beautifully throughout. The recorded sound is without fault, and the violin tone is good. The overall sound seems a little thin, though, and did not wear well with repeated listenings; considering the musical period of these compositions, one can understand this. The Biber and Schmelzer were extremely enjoyable; too bad they were limited to one selection each on the disc.

-- Tom Gibbs

BRITTEN: Sacred and Profane; Hymn to St. Cecilia; ELGAR: Part-Songs; VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Three Shakespeare Songs; DELIUS: Two Unaccompanied Part Songs; STANFORD: The Blue Bird/RIAS Kammerchor, Marcus Creed, director - Harmonia Mundi HMC 901734:

Sacred and Profane -- Benjamin Britten's Opus 91 and eclectic collection of eight song settings with no real unifying theme -- offer this disc its title and really represents what its all about, a venture into the sacred and profane. That the composers are all English and the compositions acapella are the only common ground they share.

Some of this repertory has sparse representation in the recorded catalogue, and that alone makes this disc all the more valuable, and one of the finest choral collections of the year. This is a disc of many highlights -- Britten's Sacred and Profane, a challenging and complex piece, is given a rousing performance; Elgar's There is sweet music is remarkably tender. All of this very English music, much of it warm and lyrical in nature, is offered in very idiomatic performances.

All the more remarkable is that the RIAS Kammerchor -- a German ensemble based in Berlin -- sings this very English music in a most convincing and idiomatic manner; only in a few places does the diction give any indication that non-English speaking singers are involved!

Harmonia Mundi's recorded sound is excellent -- they really seem to excel at just about any choral repertory they attempt -- the disc offers exceptional hall information and ambience and the timbre of the voices is also excellent. Another must-have disc for lovers of the choral repertory.

-- Tom Gibbs

MISSA MEXICANA--Andrew Lawrence-King, dir/The Harp Consort--Harmonia Mundi 907293:

This release offers a mass written by Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla, maestro di capella at the cathedral of Puebla in Mexico, interspersed with contemporaneous folk ballads (mostly love songs) and dance tunes. The juxtaposition is interesting and informative. The words of the mass are familiar but the music is not; to a considerable extent, it shares in the syncopation, rhythmic vitality, and strong forward movement of the rest of this material. Lawrence-King and his singers, small orchestra, and even smaller chorus are experts in this sort of thing; they produce wonderful sounds, with notable textural richness, and the percussionists are especially effective. This is unusual and fascinating music, very exciting and very beautiful, and the disc is highly recommended.

--Alex Morin

SCHOENBERG: Gurrelieder--Karita Mattila, sop/Anne Sofie von Otter, mezzo/Thomas Moser, tenor/Philip Langridge, tenor/Thomas Quasthoff, bar/Simon Rattle, cond/Berlin Philharmonic/Berlin and Leipzig Radio Choirs--EMI 557303 (2 CDs):

Gurrelieder is Schoenberg's youthful masterpiece and is his most massive non-operatic vocal work. A late Romantic composition that shares the Viennese conceptual and sound worlds of Mahler and the early Strauss, it's written on a huge scale, employing more than 400 singers and musicians for over two hours. Part song cycle and part oratorio, with symphonic and operatic episodes, it sets Jens Peter Jacobsen's Songs of Gurre, poems that deal with a Danish king and the tragic outcome of his love for a young woman. It's long, lush, often rhapsodic affair, entirely approachable, and this is much the best recording it has received. It has an all-star cast, all of whom are in good voice, and Rattle and the Berliners are alert and responsive to the texts, shaping phrases skillfully and making very beautiful sounds. Highly recommended.

--Alex Morin

WALTON: Coronation Te Deum and other choral music--Stephen Layton, cond/Polyphony/The Wallace Collection--Hyperion 67330:

William Walton escaped from humdrum Lancashire by means of an appointment as a boy chorister at Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford; "I must make myself interesting somehow or when my voice breaks I'll be sent back to Oldham," he said. The note of calculation in that statement characterizes his music as well. I've never heard much personal emotion in his work; instead, we get great craftsmanship, an imaginative use of contrasts of orchestral and vocal timbres, and a bold musical rhetoric. All that is heard on this disc, which ranges over his choral output, including the Te Deum he wrote for the coronation of Queen Elisabeth II. The forces performing them are expert: Polyphony is a small choir founded by Layton in 1986, The Wallace Collection is a brass ensemble also established in 1986. They blend well together and with the music, respecting the texts, and providing the kind of brightness and clarity called for. An enjoyable release.

--Alex Morin

LULLY: Les Divertissements de Versailles--William Christie, dir/Les Arts Florissants--Erato744552:

This disc offers an unusual 17th-century potpourri: a collection of "lyric scenes" drawn from Lully's operas and other music written over the entire span of his life at the court of Louis XIV. Many of them were written with texts by Molière, and they have all the formal elegance and emphasis on clarity of text that has characterized French music ever since. Christie, his singers, chorus, and orchestra are, as we have come to expect, superb in this music. Knowledgeable, idiomatic, precise, brisk, and forceful, they present this varied material in high and enchanting style.

--Alex Morin

LAWES: Consort Sets in Five & Six Parts--Jordi Savall, dir/ Hesperion XXI--Alia Vox 9823 (2 CDs):

These consort sets by William Lawes (1602-1645) all sound pretty much alike and may seem monotonous to the casual listener. But hear what Jordi Savall has to say about them in his fulsome program notes: "the composer's great daring and experimentation, evident in so many instances of his extremely audacious handling (of) instrumental polyphony, as well as in the unique and highly individual nature of his composition, are always driven by a profound inner logic at the service of quintessential musical meaning and expression". To hear all that requires some knowledge of the idiom of his time, as well as patience and close attention, but if you have that, you will find this disc very rewarding. Savall knows what he is talking about, and he and his group are effective exponents of this music.

--Alex Morin

LICITRA: Italian opera arias--Sony 89923:

Since his dramatic debut at the Met in May 2001, when he substituted at short notice for an ailing Pavarotti, Salvatore Licitra has been widely presaged as a possible successor to the aging "Three Tenors." He does have a splendid voice, but I think he has some way to go before he is crowned. Actually, he was fairly well known in Italy before he came to the US; he started late, but made rapid progress after he came under the tutelary wing of Carlo Bergonzi and his debut in Verona in 1998. His voice is well suited to the huge Verona arena; it's bold, strong. clear, rings out brilliantly at the top--and it's loud; you won't hear much piano singing here, and still less pianissimo. In his first disc, the selections are all familiar arias from the standard Italian opera repertory, from a smooth and lovely "E lucevan le stelle" (from Tosca) to robust versions of two arias from Verdi's Macbeth. He needs to acquire some elegance of style, some restraint and subtlety, and if he does, he will really be something to reckon with. Meanwhile, his combination of something of Pavarotti's honeyed eloquence and Domingo's forceful intensity make him a pleasure to hear.

--Alex Morin

CANCIONES AMATORIAS: Songs by Granados, Rodrigo, Nin, Guastavina, and Ginastera--Bernarda Fink, mezzo/Roger Vignoles, piano -- Hyperion 67186:

The art song came even later to Spain than it did to France, and when it did, it held on to more of its roots in popular culture. Granados's Canciones amatorias (several of which open the disc and for which it is named), for instance, are most artfully written, but they still call to mind the smoky redolence of a neighborhood cafe. So do the others--some familiar, some less so--including those by the two Argentine composers, Guastavino and Ginastera. Bernarda Fink is best known for her performances of Baroque opera, but she was born in Argentina and this music is in her blood. She sings it idiomatically, warmly, and with springy rhythms--lively or languorous, as need be--in a sultry, sensuous mezzo that evokes all the music's fragrance. Vignoles is an experienced accompanist who gives her excellent support. This is a delightful disc.

--Alex Morin

"9W...The answer to the question, 'Do you spell your name
with a V, Mr. Vagner?'" -- Steve Allen

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