Classical CD Reviews, Part 1 of 2

by | Mar 1, 2004 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments


Part 1 of 2  [Part 2]

Soir, dit-elle – Works by BRYARS, POWER, IVAN MOODY, ANDREW SMITH, OLEH HARKAVYY – Trio Mediaeval – ECM CD 1869/ 476 1241:

This second album by the Trio Mediaeval brings their three gorgeous voices (coloratura, soprano, contralto) to the public in an a capella style that has had adherents from the twelfth century through today. Recorded in April, 2003, in Propstei St. Gerold, Austria, this ear-opening performance owes a debt to Hildegard von Bingen (and those women who followed her in plainsong and chant), and Leonel Power (c.1370-1445). Yet, it is also modern in its harmonic sense, benefitting from the works of modern composers Gavin Bryars (b. 1943), Oleh Harkavyy (b. 1968), Ivan Moody (b. 1964), and Andrew Smith (b. 1970). Alternating old and new, simple and subtly complex, this album achieves a kind of timelessness. It is a kind of meditation music, and listening to it helps me find my center, helps me stay grounded in the present.

Trio Mediaeval features Norwegian Linn Andrea Fuglseth, whose musical pedigree includes having sung with a handful of highly regarded vocal groups, having studied with many noted practitioners of period singing, and having won prizes at prestigious competitions. Norwegian Torunn Østrem Ossum has a similar track record and is distinguished by an extremely wide vocal range, which has made her much sought-after. Swedish soprano Anna Maria Friman is doing a PhD on modern performance of medieval music, teaches singing, and coaches vocal ensembles. She has performed “all over the world” in various groups and as a soloist. Appearing as Anonymous 4 is disbanding, the Trio Mediaeval’s arrival couldn’t be more welcome. If you like plainsong and chant sung by women, if you’re attuned to music of meditation, or if you’ve been a fan of Anonymous 4, this is one new release to watch for. Including so much music by modern composers (though reverential to the past), this album expands the envelope of what female vocal groups can do in the future. Highly recommended!

– Max Dudious

TRADITIONAL Jewish Chants and Prayers. – Cantor Ira Rohde/Schola Hebraeica/The New London Children’s Choir/Neil Levin – Naxos 8.559411:

This album, Jewish Voices In The New World, is properly subtitled “Chants and Prayers from the American Colonial Era.” It is part of a series produced by the Milken Archive titled American Jewish Music, and features Hazzan Ira Rohde, the Schola Hebraeica, and The New London Children’s Choir, conducted by Neil Levin. It is fascinating. While abroad, I make it a point to find the synagogue in cities I visit. I’ve attended services in Amsterdam, Madrid, Copenhagen, Gothenburg, Paris, and Munich. The anthropologist in me delights in the subtle performance variety at each place: the Sephardi influence in Spain – the Ashkenazi in Gothenburg – the Progressive (or Reformed) in Munich. The sociologist gets snapshot impressions of the congregants and how the community is doing. The musicologist makes a passing nod at the different ways of singing the ancient chants and prayers at each service. I am not a scholar of such things, though my dad had recordings of Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt that he played annually.

That said, it seems Hazzan Ira Rohde sings in the Eastern European orthodox style, while the chorus, Schola Hebraeica, sings in the style I’ve heard in American Reformed services. I am sure that the panel of “leading musicians, musicologists, cantors, and Judaic scholars” selecting the works included in the Milken Archive also advise about performance. My gut reaction is, “This is too pretty. I don’t think liturgical music sounded like this three hundred years ago.” But, what do I know? I’m only guessing. It really doesn’t matter. If you’d like to know more about historic performance of liturgical Jewish music, this recording is authoritative. It features a highly knowledgeable group of performers, well recorded. It includes an equally knowledgeable booklet that traces the development of the Jewish community in the Western Hemisphere. A must for collectors. Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt would kvell.

– Max Dudious

SAMUEL BARBER: Vanessa – Libretto by Gian Carlo Menotti
Vanessa, Ellen Chickering; Erika, Andrea Matthews; The Old Baroness, Marion Dry; Anatol, Ray Bauwens; The Old Doctor, Richard Conrad; Nicholas, Philip Lima – National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine/Gil Rose – Naxos 8.669140-41 2 CDs:

This recording of Vanessa, which won Samuel Barber the 1958 Pulitzer Prize for Music, far exceeds all expectations. The lush sound, sensitive conducting, and exceptional singing accord this set an honored place among the great CDs of 2003.

A live performance in Boston about four years ago had yielded mixed results, and so it was a great pleasure to hear the same ensemble in this superb rendition. The voices of Chickering and Matthews meld beautifully (listen to their remarkable Act 2 duet) . In addition, these two seasoned sopranos deliver terrific characterizations, skillfully presenting Vanessa’s and Erika’s disparate ages and personalities. In Act 1, Chickering’s legato in “Yes, Erika, read to me” is outstanding; later, she reins in her voluminous voice in the pianissimo passages and softly elongates their notes, with exquisite results. Matthews’s intonation in “Must the winter come so soon” is a joy to hear. Her supple voice gleams with light, and even when sorrow is called for, this soprano never succumbs to gloom, portraying Erika’s quiet resignation to her solitude with great sensitivity. Overall, Matthews’s careful modulation and beautifully inflected tones are a superb achievement. Bauwens, as the young lover Anatol, is tender, but in many passages this tenor is drowned out by the orchestra. Conrad’s breathless vocalizations in Act 1 disappear in Act 2, where he gives us some of his best singing, conveying the drunken Doctor’s ruminations with great humor. Marion Dry as the Baroness isn’t given enough to do in this role, but her singing never fails to please.

The Ukrainian orchestra is terrific, the acoustics are good, but the singers are somewhat overpowered by the luminous playing of the instrumentalists. The libretto is included.

–Dalia Geffen

PROKOFIEV: Chout ballet – WDR Cologne Symphony Orch./Michail Jurowski. CPO 999 975-2:

Composed in 1921 while he was living in Paris, the ballet Chout was a product of Prokofiev’s early adulthood. It was also a product of his avant-garde phase. It is filled with abrupt effects that go to Stravinsky in their outrageous antics. Billed as a story about “a buffoon who outwits seven other buffoons,” the piece proved to be an embarrassment to the conservative Soviet authorities a decade later when Prokofiev returned to the Soviet Union. It was too sarcastic, too edgy, too lacking in redeemable ideals. For that reason it was very rarely performed until after Prokofiev’s death. What a pity! The music, constantly shifting in tone and mood, is entertaining with bizarre dance elements that Prokofiev assembled by melding folk tunes with off kilter jazz routines he learned in Paris. Even the borderline sentimental moments, such as the scene in which a rich merchant tries to woo a goat (don’t ask) are suffused with irony.

Unfortunately its greatest strength–the way the music follows the action almost exactly–is its weakness. The listener is at a distinct disadvantage when she cannot see the ballet, more so than with other ballets such as Stravinsky’s Firebird. Opinion was evenly divided. French critics lauded the piece, while English critics reviled it as “Bolshevist propaganda.” The current recording is a a highly entertaining and energetic one. Jurowski is a solid craftsperson who seems to know how to push the envelope up to the point where it would tear, then holds back. Last year I saw Gennady Rozhdestvensky perform Chout, and while his grasp of Prokofiev’s Russian sense of humor seemed keener, Jurowski is no less lively.

–Peter Bates

GINASTERA: Estancia, Concierto para arpa – Orchestra of the City of Granada/Joseph Pons/ Magdalena Barrera, harp – Harmonia Mundi 901808:

Sometimes it’s a good idea to purchase a CD just to see how the composer’s work matured. Nowhere in my recent memory has this been more evident than in the release of this CD of Argentinean composer Alberto Ginastera’s Estancia (and other works). It is unfortunate that Estancia (1943) is the featured work, because it is by far the least developed. Estancia means “rural estate” and this piece is a ballet about a city dweller who falls in love with a peasant girl. You will probably listen only once to this unsophisticated, raucous, repetitive, overly motoric, and yes, annoying music. It sounds like Ginastera imitating Aaron Copland’s El Salon Mexico, composed seven years earlier. It is a perfect example of a callow work by a beginning composer. Slightly more developed is the Fausto criollo Obertura para el (Overture to the Creole Faust) from 1943, in which the composer contrasts sophisticated classical style melodies with folk melodies, some of which were lifted from Estancia. In Variaciones concertantes he takes a bolder step and blends modernistic devices – dissonance, spontaneity, extreme contrasts– with folk melodies. It grows more interesting. Finally there is the Concerto for harp and orchestra (1956), a true masterpiece. Just listen to the harp cadenza, not so much for its impish improvisation but for what comes afterwards: a stunning display of percussive and rhythmic propulsion. This last piece, and to some degree the Variaciones concertantes, may justify the purchase of this CD. But if you’re interested in charting a composer’s development, hesitate no longer. You will see the famed composer, adolescent acne and all.

–Peter Bates

MOZART: Flute Concertos Nos. 1 and 2; Concerto for Flute and Harp – Patrick Gallois, flute; Fabrice Pierre, harp; Swedish Chamber Orchestra, Patrick Gallois and Katarina Andreasson, directors – Naxos 8.557011:

In one fell swoop, this new release has answered two burning questions: What would a Naxos Recording of the Century sound like, and what kind of a recording would Mozart have died to hear?

Well, maybe not died to hear, but I am sure that Mozart would have loved each of these three performances of Mozart’s concertos with flute so much that, like me, he would have listened to them over and over to see which he loved best. In capturing the uniquely sensuous fun and virtuosity of the composer’s personality to an unparalleled degree, they herald a new era in how his music will be perceived (and without using original instruments or authentic performance practice principles, to boot). The first Concerto, Mozart’s Oboe Concerto in flute’s clothing, has never sounded so persuasive. And only DG’s decades-old, classic recording of the Flute and Harp Concerto, starring Karlheinz Zöller and Nicanor Zabaleta, touches this in quality (if in a far more elegant, far less revolutionary way).

Gallois never became the serious Galway competitor Deutsche Grammophon would have liked him to be, but here he makes a statement for the ages as he chirps, trills, swoops and improvises his way around the nine movements and seventy minutes of music on this extraordinary disc. It reminds me of Pekka Kuuisto’s recent Ondine recording of Mozart violin concerto, but with more and zanier dash and daring. This dazzling unleashing of the Mozartian imagination is not limited to Gallois; check out the way harpist Fabrice Pierre’s arpeggio flourish anticipates by a split second the opening of the Flute and Harp Concerto. Revel in the wonderful cadenzas by Gallois, Pierre “and friends.”

As has become customary for Naxos, the sound (engineered by Andrew Halifax in the Concert Hall at Örebro, Sweden’s seventh largest town and home base for the Swedish Chamber Orchestra) is not only technically but musically excellent. Keith Anderson’s workmanlike liner notes, however, are showing their age and could use freshening.

– Laurence Vittes

IGOR STRAVINSKY – Al’ Italiana, Works for Violin and Piano = Suite Italienne for Violin and Piano (Aldo Orvieto, p.); Divertimento for Violin and Piano (Violeta Popova, p.); Duo concertant for Violin and Piano (Andreas Meyer-Hermann, p.), all with Dora Bratchkova, violin – CPO 999 941-2:

Stravinsky’s aversion for the combination of piano and strings was overcome in 1930 when he met the American violinist Samule Dushkin. In Dushkin he found not the virtuoso bereft of musical values but a violinist of “high musical culture, a fine understanding, and a truly unusual restraint in the exercise of his profession.” The result was the composer’s Violin Concerto (1931) which Dushkin premiered as the soloist. In the 1932-33 and 1933-34 seasons Stravinsky and Dushkin concertized together in Europe. Suite Italienne and the Divertimento were arranged for violin and piano so that the duo could perform some of Stravinsky’s compositions on their tour. Suite Italienne is an arrangement of movements from the composer’s 1920 ballet Pulcinella, but here arranging becomes almost a recomposition of the original. The Divertimento is a violin-piano transcription of the suite from the ballet The Fairy’s Kiss. Duo Concertante, Stravinsky’s only original composition for violin and piano, reflects the composer’s thoughts on lyrical expression (“there is no lyrical language without rules, and these rules must be strict”), as well as his affection for the form and content of the scholarly poets of antiquity. The result is an ingeniously spiky version of Stravinsky’s brand of lyricism.

Bulgarian violinist Brachkova is best in the Duo Concertante where her performance captures the insouciant spirit and wit that was a Stravinsky trademark. The Gigue bounces along as only a twentieth century dance could. However, in the lyrical Divertimento and the Suite Italienne, her shaky intonation obscures the romance in these works. The sound is clear and forward, and well balanced between violin and piano. If you don’t know these works, this is a good place to begin.

— Robert Moon

The Tube Only Violin: Captivating Violin Pieces – Daniel Gaede, violin/Xuesu Liu, piano – Wojciech Rajski conducts Polish Chamber Philharmonic (Kreisler); Students of Prof. Daniel Gaede at the Nuremberg High School for Music (Hellmesberger) – Tacet 117 65:04 (Dist. ClassiQuest):

Daniel Gaede (b. 1966) is the current concertmaster of the Vienna
Philharmonic Orchestra, a former pupil of Max Rostal and Josef Gingold,
which pretty much guarantees his pedigree. He sports a lovely, swift, and
polished tone, captured for this recording by the Neumann U47 microphone, the concept’s being to promote a transistor-free audio disc with lifelike sound. Audiophiles may in fact find a warmth to the sonic sheen that alternative, digital recording techniques lack.

The program of fifteen pieces ranges from Tchaikovsky’s Melody, Op. 42,
No. 3 to Kreisler’s Concerto in C Major, “in the style of Vivaldi.” The
second largest work, the Scene de Ballet, Op. 100 by Charles-Auguste de
Beriot, could easily pass for a Franco-Polish virtuoso vehicle by
Wieniawski. Gaede and accompanist Liu linger over Schubert’s Ave Maria
with old-world charm. I found Ysaye’s Reve d’enfant sweet; I found
Schchedrin’s little In the Style of Albeniz piquant and a bit acerbic.
Spanish pieces by Moszkowski and Ponce are characteristic, played in the
curt, lithe manner of Heifetz. What I get from the album is a sense of the
19th Century salon, augmented by a few unusual bits of programming, like
Hellmesberger’s Romanze, Op. 43, No. 2. The Elgar, Massenet, Drigo, and
Schumann works that fill out the recital are typical of Mischa Elman’s
saccharinely sentimental recordings.

–Gary Lemco

THE LONDON TRUMPET SOUND, Vol. 2 – Geoffrey Simon, conductor – Cala CACD 0114 (45 mins.):

Balancing classical, jazz, Latin and popular music, this second volume of The London Trumpet Sound, featuring Britain’s finest and busiest trumpeters, is inevitably an audiophile treat of pomp and circumstance, but goes beyond that to provide a profoundly beautiful recording. Recorded at BBC’s Maida Vale Studio 3 and St. Jude-on-the-Hill in August of 2001, the delicately layered, silvery sound can take all the volume you can give it, but at lower volumes has an extraordinary delicacy of sound as if the conflict between digital and analogue had finally been resolved. And whether it would have benefited from the use of multiple channels, it revels in the straightforward purity of stereo.

The program is quite imaginative, ranging from the Latin hi-jinks of Mambo Caliente and Dos Gardenias to Tony Rickard’s arrangement of the “Hoedown” from Aaron Copland’s Rodeo. After more delicious appetizers—I Heard It Through The Grapevine, John Williams’s theme from Superman, Amazing Grace and the opening fanfare from Leos Janacek’s Sinfonietta—Paul Sarcich’s kitschy arrangement of The Carnival of Venice proves the concert’s high spot, as solo trumpeter John Wallace and solo cornettist Roger Webster lead the ensemble through an amazing nine minutes of parlor-quiz quotations from everything from Rimsky-Korsakov to Berlioz. The serious part of the program concludes with a three-movement suite from Handel’s Royal Fireworks.

So, if you like the sound of massed trumpets, flugelhorns, euphoniums and drums in exquisite performances of fanciful arrangements of highly entertaining music, and you want a disc to test your sound system, The London Trumpets and Cala have the very excellent new release for you!

– Laurence Vittes

BACH: The English Suites, BWV 806-811 – Angela Hewitt, piano – Hyperion CDA67451/2 72:11; 72:54 (Distrib. Harmonia Mundi):

Angela Hewitt is a Canadian-born artist who has gleaned a solid reputation
for her traversal of the Bach keyboard works for the Hyperion label. A
prizewinner in the Casadesus and Dino Ciani Competitions, she has
established herself among the mature and seasoned veterans of the concert hall and the recording studio. She supplies her own, intelligent and
informative notes on the English Suites, recorded at Henry Wood Hall,
London over two seasons, 2002-2003.

Having been reared on both the Agi Jambor and Glenn Gould approaches to
Bach on the keyboard, along with occasional pieces by Wilhelm Backhaus and now, Andras Schiff and Murray Perahia, I am rather saturated with the
pieces, and it is hard to get me wound up about yet another survey.
Certainly, these works are well played and well recorded. For my money,
Hewitt doesn’t really involve me emotionally until No. 3 in G Minor, when
she cuts loose. The first two suites are too staid, too overripe, too
academic for my taste. Hewitt sports neither the pointillism of Gould nor
the full, rounded tone of Backhaus and Perahia. She does get some
beautiful sonority throughout the second disc, Suites 4-6, with her
obvious love of the D minor, No. 6. Some will enjoy her handling of the
sarabandes in these traversals; some will find them ruminating a bit out
of the way. I like what Hewitt does the courantes as a whole; with their
rather intricate rhythms and suave insertion of ornaments, we are not so
far from Chopin. Everything about this set suggests the teacher-virtuoso,
a lover of Bach whose communication has some bravura, but not enough of the mystery we call poetry to make her an immortal in my book.

–Gary Lemco

LINDBERG: A Christmas Cantata – Margareta Jalkeus, Soprano / Olle Pearson, Baritone / Nils Lindberg Big Band / Gustaf Sjokvist Chamber Choir / Gustaf Sjokvist, Conductor – Proprius PRCD 2027:

My apologies, this disc arrived too late to make it into either the December or January issues, and although it’s a relatively seasonal release it may be of interest to many out there.

I’ve raved in these pages before about my rabid appreciation for Proprius releases, and this disc differs little from the many other Proprius titles in my collection. It shares all the same phenomenal technical attributes, with amazing ambient presence, a broad and deep soundstage, along with tremendous dynamic range. The recorded voices and instruments occupy a very convincing soundstage and project a rock-solid image of real performers in a very real space. You can just about pinpoint the location of each individual singer and instrument on the stage – it’s just uncanny and makes acquisition of any disc by Proprius just about a no-brainer – you know it’s going to sound great.

The musical program is something else altogether, though. I don’t necessarily mean that in a bad way, it just might not appeal to every palate. The cantata is basically, a retelling of the Christmas story via spoken or sung interludes, interspersed with mostly big band renditions of popular Christmas carols. Some of the interludes are kind of darkly foreboding, which I really don’t think always works quite well with the subject material. But then again, some of the sung intros are really quite striking, with a hauntingly beautiful quality about them. The carols are given spirited renditions, kind of like Christmas at the Pops – so listen to the entire disc, or just program the carols or the selections you like. The disc ends with three mostly acapella choral renderings of Swedish folk songs, which gives the choir some room to stretch out.

There’s much here to like – and the recording quality is first rate – it’s growing on me more with every listen!.

— Tom Gibbs

HINDEMITH: Clarinet Chamber Music – John Bruce Yeh, Clarinet / Easley Blackwood, Piano / Amelia Piano Trio and friends – Cedille Records CDR 90000 072:

Paul Hindemith’s career began with mostly atonal works, more akin to Serialism than anything else. In the mid 1920’s, he abruptly abandoned his atonal pursuits and began to compose in a more tonal frame of work; these clarinet-based chamber pieces offer some of the first fruits of his newly adopted style of composition. John Bruce Yeh plays superbly throughout – especially noteworthy is the Sonata for Clarinet and Piano, in which he plays a less common Oehler clarinet that has a much more woody tone – not to mention the splendid accompaniment from composer Easley Blackwood.

Cedille has given us another excellent recording here – I’d strongly suggest checking out their catalog – nothing I’ve ever heard from them has been anything short of stunning. Very highly recommended, not only to lovers of clarinet music, but to lovers of well-recorded chamber music in general.

— Tom Gibbs


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