Classical CD Reviews, Part 2 of 2

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

March 2004 Pt. 2 of 2   [Pt. 1]

BRAHMS: Double Concerto in A Minor, Op. 102; Symphony No. 2 in d Major, Op. 73 – Gordan Nikolitch, violin; Tim High, cello; Bernard Haitink conducts London Symphony Orchestra – LSO 0043 74:50 (Distrib. Harmonia Mundi):

Recorded live in May 17-18, 2003 at the Barbican Center, London, this disc bespeaks some lovely playing and infinite, warm sympathy between conductor and orchestra. The soloists in the Double Concerto are principals from the LSO, and they play fervently and passionately, without lapsing into the academic mode of musical acumen without poetry. I am not too find of the rather staid, imperial tempo of the outer movements, which is a bit too Elgarian for my taste. The tone of the piece becomes elegiac, without the occasional bristle of unbuttoned gypsy style the Vivace non troppo can tolerate. Still, if one accepts its status as ‘orchestral chamber music,’ the rendition certainly works.

The D Major Symphony has had many expert renditions; this one tries hard to be the most sonically compelling. For sheer loveliness of orchestral tone, Haitink evokes a palette we associate with the homogeneity Koussevitzky and Mengelberg achieved with their respective ensembles. The blending of voices–cellos, winds, and even the tuba–is silken delight to the Brahms aficionado. The B Major Adagio movement may well be a kind of watermark for Haitink collectors, although his Boston Symphony inscriptions and his Mahler with the Concertgebouw have had their moments of precise and shiny texturing, as well. While I keep my reservations on the Concerto, the Haitink D Major Symphony points to a happy collaboration of artists that may produce more treasures.

–Gary Lemco

BOCCHERINI: Guitar Quintets G. 448 and G. 453, String Quartet G. 194 – Europa Galante/Biondi – Virgin Veritas 45607 (71 mins.):

This lovely coupling of chamber music by the relentlessly mellifluous Boccherini, including the two great major key guitar quintets, gives violinist Fabio Biondi and his Europa Galante crew a chance to show that they can be take a gentler tack when indicated than their great recordings of Vivaldi and Bach might indicate.

The opening of the D major quintet G. 448 is downright restrained, almost to the point of inaudibility, and guitarist Giangiacomo Pinardi takes a less soloistic place in the ensemble than most recordings. This is not to say that the playing in what is customarily performed with an extrovert “Spanish” flavor, such as the fandango fourth movement of the G. 448 quintet, is anything less than exuberant. Even there, however, the dazzling layering of instrumental sound makes almost as powerful an impression as the dancing rhythms and castanets. True to their reputation, the musicians improvise to their hearts’ (and the listeners’) delight, finding as they go many new ways to play the deliciously sensuous slides and syrupy slurps that are such a part of the composer’s wonderful imagination.

Separating the two famous guitar quintets is a relatively unfamiliar string quartet in G minor, music as austere as the key and Boccherini can manage. It’s a nice touch, clearing the aural palette like cheese between the courses in a wine tasting.

The sound, recorded in the Convento San Giovanni Evangelista in Parma, is rich in earth tones and astonishing detail. Not as seductive as some more consciously audiophile recordings, but perfectly suited to the performances. The notes by Yves Gérard (whose catalogue provides the “G.” numbers) are serious and straightforward.

– Laurence Vittes

BOISMORTIER: Sérénades françaises, Les fragments mélodiques, Bassoon Concerto, Deuxième sérénade ou simphonie françoise, Concerto pour Zampogna – Le Concert Spirituel/ Laurent Le Chenadec, bassoon/ Hervé Niquet cond. – Naxos 8.554456:

According to my 1935 Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Joseph Bodin de Boismortier was born in Perpignan c.1689, and died near Paris c.1755, which makes him a close contemporary of J.S. Bach (1685-1750) and Telemann (1681-1767). “He composed four ballet operas, of which three met with great success, the fourth was not performed; a number of cantatas, and over 50 opus numbers of instrumental works, including a large number of pieces for musette and vielle (hurdy-gurdy) which (c. 1725-35) were in the height of fashion, especially at the French court. He was a gifted composer, but writing at high pressure for gain detracted from the value of his work. In spite of this, however, it contains here and there a distinct gem.” That’s it. One paragraph. You might call his work obscure.

So it was with low expectations that I flipped this CD into the tray of surprises, and lo and behold! Pretty damn nice music. Especially the bassoon concerto. I can’t say the music mimics anyone else’s in its essence. It doesn’t have Bach’s unrelenting adherence to form, though it obeys the rules of the day; nor Bach’s harmonic adventurousness. It doesn’t have Vivaldi’s showcasing of virtuoso instrumentalists, perhaps because he didn’t have any to write for. Nor does it have Telemann’s invention of new orchestral combinations, though it obviously has some. What it has is a Gallic flair, a lightness of touch, a lack of serious purpose beyond bringing pleasure, and these elements make it much like Telemann’s lesser works, his Tafelmusik, or table-music. This 18th century music is something we 21st century folks might enjoy at a dinner-party, as it isn’t so engaging to force us to attend. When asked why he didn’t write more serious music, Boismortier would say, “I am earning money.” Or, in today’s parlance, “This is how I earn my living.” To which what riposte could one offer?

What we have here is an anthology of occasional pieces, some with unusual instruments (hurdy-gurdy), some in standard instrumentation, some charmingly different dances, a brief bassoon concerto, another for zampogna (Calabrian bagpipe), all done with remarkable grace. If you are interested in French court music, this album touches many of the bases. If you’d like to stump your friends with unusual music while dining, this is certainly a product of a dark corner in music history, but one well worth shining light on. (As Sir Winston Churchill once wrote as marginalia to an aide who went to extraordinarily awkward lengths to avoid breaking the rule forbidding ending a sentence with a preposition: “This is the sort of English up with which I will not put.”)

Seriously folks, if you would know more about the first half of the 18th century in French music, this collection of Boismortier’s work is a fine place to start. If you already have a taste for that place and time, this album will round out your collection. This is good music, well-played, and well-recorded, and will make a fine addition to any period collection. The compositions may not be two or three part inventions, but “Recommended” nonetheless. They score heavily for grand style.

— Max Dudious.

ANGLO-AMERICAN ANONYMOUS: American Angels; Songs of Hope, Redemption, & Glory. – Anonymous 4 – Harmonia mundi HMU 907326:

This collection of largely 19th century American folk hymns, gospel songs, camp revival songs, psalm tunes, fugeing tunes, and religious ballads is a surprising, if not wholly unexpected, departure for Anonymous 4, who usually focus on medieval music, Hildegard von Bingen and the like. The names of the usually unnamed group are Marsha Genensky, Susan Hellauer, Jacqueline Horner, and Johanna Maria Rose. The talent of these four women has won citations and awards ranging from A Record of the Year, 2001 from The Sunday Times, London; and Editor’s Choice from Gramophone magazine, to a Classic CD Award, 1996 from Classic CD magazine, and a “ffff” from Télérama. They have also been awarded a Diapason d’Or (Gold Medal) from the French recording industry, something like an American Grammy. The single word that best describes their oeuvre is extraordinary.

From “Songs to the Virgin from 13th Century France,” to John Tavener’s recent compositions “The Bridegroom & other works,” Anonymous 4 have redefined the role of a capella singing for female voices. They have been together for the past eighteen years, and this album may be their last – this collection of isicathamiya (a capella singing of one’s homeland).

The collection starts out as an attempt to capture the various singing styles that were in use in the eighteenth-century Colonies and follow their development through that and the nineteenth century, from the Northeastern cities back to the rural South via printed tune books, and back again to the north via oral traditions saddlebagged onto migration patterns. Most important were the singing schools, “where students practiced singing the octave scale with European solmization syllables, fa-sol-la-fa-sol-la-mi-fa, and learned to sing music composed in three and four parts.” By the early nineteenth century, “Singing school masters now published tune books containing a new ‘patented’ notation using four different shapes for noteheads (triangle _ for fa, circle _ for sol, rectangle _ for la, and diamond _ for mi.” This system caught on in helping students learn more quickly how to read music. It became known as “shape singing,”and such singing became central to the lives of folks who attended revival meetings, huge evangelical religious gatherings venerated as “that old-time religion.”

Some of the songs have survived down through the centuries and have been included in recordings by such artists as Ralph Stanley, the Louvin Brothers, Emmylou Harris, and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, among others. The most familiar titles include Shall We Gather at the River, Angel Band, Wayfaring Stranger, Amazing Grace, and In the Sweet By and By. For a more complete mini-history, see the informative album notes by Marsha Genensky quoted above.

This album is a compilation of songs familiar to those who might enjoy the soundtrack album of the film Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? or the Smithsonian anthology known as The Harry Smith Collection. Such songs are variously categorized as hillbilly, bluegrass, country, and Southern gospel. All of these categories share a set of common roots. And all of those go back to Colonial times, Anglo-American hymnals, and their early shape-singing arrangements. This latest, perhaps final, album is an attempt by Anonymous 4 to bring their musical sensibilities and scholarly approach to this material. This album is highly successful, and highly recommended.

— Max Dudious

TAVENER: Ikon of Eros – Minnesota Orchestra; Minnesota Chorale; Jorja Fleezanis, vn; Patricia Rosario, sop; Tim Krol, bar./Paul Goodwin, cond. – Reference Recordings HDCD, RR-102CD:

Sir John Kenneth Tavener was knighted by Queen Elizabeth on 1 January 2000 in the Millenium Honours List. He completed Ikon of Eros in October of that same year. We might see it as a composition by a mature artist at the top of his game. According to the author of the album notes, Michael Steinberg, Tavener is a composer “who in his composing lives in the world of the Divine and the Numinous. So it has been for the last twenty years, and what he has written in that period has made him, among living composers, the one with the largest, widest, most diverse audience.” In this secular age, Tavener seems to have found a porthole, what Rumanian scholar Mircea Eliade saw as an interface between the sacred and the profane where the Divine may make itself known to our everyday lives. And it is here that Tavener most enjoys living and writing.

The first paragraph of the album’s notes offers a list of instruments, as if a partial explanation of the music about to be experienced. “Ikon of Eros is scored for five groups of performers: solo violin, solo soprano, and dholak (a double-headed cylindrical drum); Greek psaltist (or cantor), mixed chorus, and very large Tibetan temple bowl and very large tam-tam; two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, small Tibetan temple bowl, very large tam-tam, and dholak; four horns, four trumpets, three tenor trombones and bass trombone, large Tibetan temple bowl, and very large tam-tam; medium Tibetan temple bowl, very large tam-tam, dholak, and strings.” This is a big work, partly Greek and partly Tibetan in its influences.

In the album notes there is also a bit of Tavener’s philosophy and his likes and dislikes of other composers. I have trouble with this aspect of his public persona. I’d rather not have known so much about him, and let his music stand on its own. And formidable music it is, ranging from one extreme to another from moment to moment. Tavener takes us from religious transfiguration, to Divine love, to religious ecstasy, and to hallelujahs. It is not so much that he does it, as how he does it. He brings us to the mysteries with eerie sounding echoes of the past. He sees the closeness of “the self-abnegation of Byzantine orthodoxy” and similar Buddhist teaching: “To deny wanting is to deny suffering; to deny wanting is to deny the self: to deny the self is to deny suffering.” To underscore this, he goes from Greek Orthodox liturgical music to Tibetan, from beautiful cantorial singing to the cacophony of beaten drums and bowls. It is eerily beautiful.

To understand how he gets us to go along – to experience transfiguration, Divine love, religious ecstasy, and prayers of praise – is to understand his art. This is music to be played loudly for effect, in surround sound, or in the case of this recording and on my system, in simulated surround sound, to capture the spaciousness of the venue – the Cathedral of Saint Paul in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Perhaps we should don saffron robes and sandals to listen to this work. Whatever will put us in the spiritual condition to seek interface with the Divine will do.

This is a spiritual work, one that shares the religious impulse with all the great works of the past, Bach’s Cantatas, Handel’s Messiah, Mozart’s Requiem, etc. though it is not in the same idiom. Whether you agree with Tavener’s philosophy or not, this is powerful stuff. Most highly recommended. Among the most exciting music I’ve heard lately.

— Max Dudious

WOELFL: Piano Sonata in C Minor, Op. 25; 3 Sonatas, Op. 33 – Jon Nakamatsu, piano – Harmonia Mundi HMU 907324 69:49:

Former Van Cliburn (1997) Competition Gold Medalist Jon Nakamatsu turns his formidable gifts to the neglected world of Joseph Woelfl (1773-1812), the Salzburg-born virtuoso and composer whose friendly rivalry with Beethoven is legend. The large work in this assemblage is the C Minor Sonata from 1805, a bravura showpiece in the Hummel or Mendelssohn emotional range, vibrant with flying filigree and even a daunting fugue.

In the manner of Clementi, Woelfl loves to show off running figures in thirds, a feat Mozart eschewed. The Op. 33 works are smaller in scale, sonatinas really; like their Op. 25 companion, there is a sense of incipient Romanticism, with echoes of grand gestures and sighs we hear in Weber. The E Major Sonata, Op. 33, No. 3, has a martial air that recollects Mozart’s K. 576 “Trumpet” Sonata and the F Major Concerto, K. 459. Each of the Woelfl pieces has its own sparkle and its own charm. Nakamatsu avoids any trace of heaviness, sporting a light but ringing tone that only captivates the audiophile, courtesy of the splendid engineering work of Brad Michel. Rare and well-done, as Karl Haas would say.

–Gary Lemco

BACH, J.S.: Cantatas 82, Ich habe genug; and 199, Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut – Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, mezzo soprano/The Orchestra of Emmanuel Music/ Craig Smith, cond. – Nonesuch 79692.2:

Though the first half of the eighteenth century was considered the beginning of the Enlightenment (culminating with Voltaire and the philosophs in Catholic France, and Goethe in Protestant Germany), the sway of religion over daily life was still quite powerful. The faithful saw the divinity everywhere. God pervaded the world – every day – and man celebrated God with prayers morning, noon, and evening. The handful of cantatas Bach wrote for solo voice (not for his more numerous compositions for chorus and usually two or more soloists) show Bach at his most religious, as though the soloist were speaking for Bach as he wrestled with those theological issues the devout Christian ought to confront.

Bach’s Cantata 82, Ich habe genug, is about man’s readiness to die (or, rather, the steps necessary to prepare for death free of worldly distractions), a musical sermon based on the lesson from the Gospel or Epistle assigned for that particular day. In Luke 2:22-32 (we’re told in the engaging album notes), the portion focuses on Simeon “to whom it had been revealed by the Holy Ghost ‘that he should not see death, before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.’ This is followed by Simeon’s beatific prayer known as the Nunc dimittis: ‘Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word: For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou has prepared before the face of all people; a light to lighten the gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.’” In this way believers can die in peaceful repose, for death shall have no dominion, nor terror.

Cantata 199, more specifically, deals with the humility of the sinner before God. The entirety of the cantata amounts to a series of confessions of unworthiness. During the course of the cantata, the tone of the declaration moves from regret to acceptance, to rejoicing at reunion with God. That is the trajectory of both these cantatas.

The singing is wonderful as Lorraine Hunt Lieberson has clarity of diction, control of presentation, a lovely mezzo voice, and the musicianship to bring both these song cycles into dramatic focus. It is clear she has thought long and hard about the meaning of each phrase, performing them often, here turning them artfully to her purpose. Boston’s Orchestra of Emmanuel Music, under the direction of Craig Smith, is schooled in the conventions of the period and accompanies with great assurance. Particularly notable is oboist Peggy Pearson, whose playing in the duet sections is delicately expressive. In all, a first-rate effort.

The acoustic of Emmanuel Church, Boston, is about that of a medium sized church of Bach’s era, if I remember accurately the facsimile I visited and listened in at Munich’s Deutsches Museum – the German museum of science and technology with a section dedicated to housing old instruments. I’d guess the Emmanuel Church was chosen because its decay time is appropriate to the period and the music. This album, recorded in standard CD format, is highly recommended. Make that quite highly. Good job, guys.

— Max Dudious

CHOPIN: Ballades, Mazurkas, Polonaises – Piotr Anderszewski – Virgin 7243 545602 0:

While not close to as eccentric as the late Glenn Gould, Piotr Anderszewski has managed to garner unto himself the label of this generation’s Peck’s Bad Boy of piano virtuosi. When I heard him as guest soloist with my local symphony I couldn’t understand how that came to pass, unless to walk one step to either side of the corporate middle road is to be a rebel these days. He played a Haydn piano concerto to which he leant a modern touch that I felt was within the bounds of perfectly acceptable, and in service of the music. Maybe he’s been an enfant terrible in the past, but this program of Chopin ballades, mazurkas, and polonaises seems standard fare to me. Which is not to say that Anderszewski is another of the buttoned down and seemingly interchangeable guest soloists that parade through the classical music world these days. He’s not. He’s more.

Having said that, it is incumbent on me to show how. I grew up with Chopin played by Artur Rubenstein, Emil Gilels, and Dinu Lupati (some of my dad’s favorites). More recently I’ve listened to Malcolm Frager and Tamás Vásáry, though I must admit Chopin never developed the passion in me I’ve felt for the solo piano works of Beethoven and Schubert, Liszt and Ravel. Still, one can’t help but marvel at Chopin’s Ballades, especially No. 4 in F minor, Op. 52. And it is here that Anderszewski shines.

Compared with Vásáry, we note that Anderszewski takes nearly a full two minutes longer: that’s nearly a 20% increase stretching a ten minute piece to twelve minutes. Slowing the tempo (also one of Glenn Gould’s tricks) allows for two things: first, the slower passages come across as more dreamy, as in the nocturnes, so when the tempo reaccelerates it seems to bring with it a rush of intensity; and secondly, stretching the phrases out, and the silences between, seems to add a sense of profound meaning. Another trick is increasing the dynamic range, playing the softs, softer – and the louds, louder. Taken all together, the music seems more intensely meaningful in the hands of Anderszewski. Obviously, he has the control and talent to pull it off.

Comparing readings of the Heroic Polonaise in A Flat Major, Op. 53, Frager takes 6:22 while Anderszewski takes 7:45; again, nearly a 20% increase. While Vásáry flies perhaps too lightly through the Ballade #4, Frager drives his way perhaps too muscularly through the Heroic Polonaise leaving little room for variation in texture. Heroic it is named, and heroic it will be. By slowing things down, Anderszewski creates a greater range of emotional expression, subtlety, and nuance within each piece. And therein lies the strength of his readings.

If it seems that Chopin is all dreamy reverie in one piece, all birds and flowers in another, or all nationalistic fervor in a third, we might dismiss him as too monolithic. If, as Piotr Anderszewski demonstrates, there is more to Chopin (even within single pieces) than previous performance conventions would allow, we can see how he appears to be taking on the Establishment with his readings. I, for one, welcome his insurgency as a breath of fresh air. This one is a natural fit for Chopin lovers who’d enjoy a fresh look at the music, and for those who have just discovered Chopin and want to go farther into his oeuvre. Highly recommended.

– Max Dudious

TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphony No. 5; Romeo & Juliet Fantasy Overture. – Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/ Daniele Gatti – Harmonia mundi HMU 907381:
Tchaikovsky wrote in an oft-quoted letter that he was dissatisfied with his fifth symphony (Opus 64, 1888), saying that it came too easy, was (in today’s parlance) like painting by the numbers. I don’t share his opinion about this symphony that, many feel, is his most mature masterpiece. He may have felt it formulaic, but if that’s true it was one inspired formula. His later symphony, No. 6 (“The Pathetique”), may have more Sturm und Drang, while his earlier No. 1 (“Winter Dreams”) and No. 2 (“Little Russian”) symphonies may be more optimistic, but his Symphony #5 seems to have captured his deeply conflicted personality oscillating, as it does, between pleasant waltz themes and martial mementos moris. It was said, by earlier critics, that his fifth symphony had touches of religious sentiment. I’m not sure how that was meant, though I do hear some references to finality and death. In either case, the work has lots of depth and resonance and is usually listed (along with his sixth) as among his best works in symphonic form.

The Romeo & Juliet Fantasy Overture was written in 1869, nineteen years before the fifth symphony, and has come to be considered his “first masterpiece,” the piece that turned Tchaikovsky into TCHAIKOVSKY!! Based on the Shakespearean drama, the piece abounds with a handful of musical character sketches, and the energy of the piece develops with the action between these characters. The work, according to my 1935 Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians, “seems to glow and throb with youthful passion and tenderness.” A fair assessment, I’d say, and brought to life in this performance. Considering the piece as an early self portrait, this album leaves us with a snapshot of Tchaikovsky in first flower of creative mastery, with Romeo & Juliet his Portrait of the Artist, as it were, and another snapshot of the mature composer in Symphony #5, his Ulysses. Nice programming from the guys at Harmonia mundi.

The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra of London, plays its collective fingers to the bone on this one, sounding quite well disciplined, and allowing Gatti to live up to his reputation as a contender for the title Best Conductor of his Generation. The orchestra is in fine fettle, and its abilities are well captured by the harmonia mundi recording team. The acoustics are a little back in the hall for my taste, but not everyone likes to sit up close as I do. All in all, a fine recording of some nice music bringing the Tchaikovsky oeuvre up to date in pretty modern (2003, though not SACD) recording technology.

There is an irony here in that the Russian Tchaikovsky took trips to Italy to study both formal and folk music. He wrote pieces based on Italian melodies and stories. Romeo & Juliet is set in Italy. It seems he enjoyed Italy and wanted to absorb as much Italian culture as he could. It is almost as though he, himself, wanted to become more Italian. Gatti is an Italian who here is demonstrating his mastery of the Russian idiom, of the great Russian master’s music. So Gatti is trying to be more Russian, and offers us the work of a Russian who is trying to be more Italian. Just another of life’s little paradoxes.

This is a well-conceived, well-played, well-recorded offering of two of Tchaikovsky’s best works. Any Tchaikovsky devotée ought to get right to his computer and order this one from his favorite vendor. Consider it an obligation to keep classical music going.

— Max Dudious

SCHUBERT: Fantasy in C Major for Violin and Piano, D. 934/ERNST: Fantaise brillante on Rossini’s Othello/SCHOENBERG: Phantasy for Violin and Piano, Op. 47/WAXMAN: Fantasy on Themes from Bizet’s Carmen Frank Huang, violin/Dina Vainstein, piano – Naxos 8.557121 57:18:

Winner of the 2003 Naumburg Foundation’s Violin Competition, Frank Huang celebrates his special, sizzling artistry with a group of fantasies, three of which show off his bravura and digital prowess; and the Schoenberg, which would seem to certify his catholic, musical taste. If you are buying the album for the melodies, you may skip this track. Even Menuhin and Gould could not make its episodes sing. The big piece, musically, is the Schubert, structured in the four-sections- and-variations he made his own in kindred works like the Wanderer Fantasy.

Huang, who sports a long, lean, and supple tone, plays it without bathos or sag; its lovely variants on the song Sei mir gegrusst hold up nicely. The Ernst (1814-1865) fantasy is a kind of virtuoso etude, mostly a series of variations on the march and romance that open the piece. Franz Waxman (nee Wachsmann) joined the Warner Brothers cadre of classical composers of film music; and this arrangement of Carmen graced the vehicle Humoresque (1946) for John Garfield and Joan Crawford. Both Isaac Stern (who played the film track) and Jascha Heifetz favored Waxman’s spiffy arrangement over the Sarasate fantasy. The Waxman and Sarasate rather complement each other, with Waxman’s giving more filigree to Escamillo and Carmen’s Seguidilla. The album is musically engaging, and Huang plays warmly and even passionately. Given the easy, melodic gait of the majority of the pieces, I wonder Huang did not opt for Paganini’s Le Streghe or the Fantasy on Rossini’s Moses over the Schoenberg: if he is going to follow Ricci and Stern into the Romantic repertory, he may as well stick with the tunes.

–Gary Lemco

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