Classical CD Reviews
Classical CD Reviews, Part 2 of 2
Published on February 1, 2004
Jan/Feb 2004 Pt. 2 of 2 [Pt. 1]
Cecilia Zilliacus = STRAVINSKY: Divertimento. SIBELIUS: Humoresques 1, 2 & 6, and Romance Op. 78 No. 2. Sven-David Sandström (born 1942) Diabas for solo violin. RAVEL:Tzigane – Cecilia Zilliacus, violin. Anders Kilström, piano – Caprice CAP 21564 (53 mins.):
Swedish violinist Cecilia Zilliacus follows her sensational debut recording for Caprice with a stunning, highly unusual recital of music that showcases her laser-like intonation, jewel-like beauty of tone and death-defying interpretive attitude. Whether it’s in Igor Stravinsky’s sophisticated primitivism or Ravel’s sophisticated gypsy strains, she infuses her hypnotizing world of color and line with occasional blood-chilling spikes. She also finds Anders Kilström a perfect partner; some of his pastel shadings in the Ravel defy description.
For good measure, Zilliacus throws in a tour de force for violin alone by Swedish composer Sven-David Sandström. Called Diabas, the six and a half minute movement, which leads from swaying minimalism to the simplicity of remote, plucked notes, was written for an amplified violin made out a kind of black granite called diabase which the artist Lars Wiedenfalk used for making an instrument—gilded on the inside, besides! The piece has enjoyed great success, and was played by Zilliacus for her diploma concert of chamber music at the Royal Swedish Academy (here, however, she plays it on a regular violin).
The program is completed by four of Sibelius’s enchanting miniatures which Zilliacus warms with haunting emotion hinting of deeper passions.
Bertil Gripe’s sound for the Swedish Broadcasting Corporation in Stockholm is brilliant, seeming to encourage the young performers to shine ever more brightly. Hans-Gunnar Peterson’s liner notes tell the music’s story with a flair and enthusiasm similar to that of Zilliacus and Kilström.
– Laurence Vittes
CARE-CHARMING SLEEP: Songs and madrigals by Monteverdi, Purcell, Robert Johnson, John Wilbye, Cipriano da Rore, Benedetto Ferrari, Giovanni Felices Sances, Riccardo Rognoni and Cherubino Busatti – The Dowland Project: John Potter, voice; Stephen Stubbs, chitarrone and Baroque guitar; John Surman, soprano saxophone and bass clarinet; Maya Homburger, Baroque violin; Barry Guy, double bass – ECM New Series 1803 (65 mins.):
Have label chief Manfred Eicher and his minions at ECM no shame? Will they stop at nothing to explore the beauty of music, making no distinction between actual or implied? Will they subvert time just to achieve moments of fleeting ecstasy?
If the evidence of Care-Charming Sleep is anything to go by, the answer to all these questions is, apparently, no. Extending the work begun on Darkness Let Me Dwell, ex-Hilliard Ensemble singer John Potter and the group now known as The Dowland Project continue to restore the craft of improvisation to the music of the early Baroque as five musicians steeped in and liberated by a deeply intimate knowledge of early music construct and interpret a painfully beautiful latticework of songs and madrigals. As Potter’s exquisitely beautiful tenor leads the way around and through the program’s thoughts and sounds, each of the instrumentalists play her or his role in almost incestuous ensemble, rent from time to time by the quietly plaintive sobs and wails of John Surman’s soprano sax.
The sounds Tonmeister Markus Heiland has captured are so pure that they seem to have been conceived specifially for the recording venue: a thousand year old monastic sanctuary in the Austrian Vorarlberg (Austria’s westernmost province, where the mountains meet the lake and Germany, Austria and Switzerland come together). John Potter’s liner notes stake out both his mandate and the Project’s solution to fashioning a contemporary lens through which to hear this body of emotion-laden music. His style is sincere although when he writes, “When a man sings ‘Lamento della ninfa’ it cannot mean what the text says it means, therefore it cannot mean what the composer and poet originally meant by it,” he may be biting off, philosophically speaking, more then he can chew.
In other words, just what you’d expect from one of Manfred Eicher’s crew.
– Laurence Vittes
LIGETI: String Quartets, Ramifications, Melodien, Cello Suite – LaSalle Quartet, EIC/Boulez, London Sinfonietta/Atherton, etc. – DGG 474 327-2:
When you first hear Ligeti’s String Quartet No. 1, you realize you’re in the familiar territory of an eminent countryman: the harsh melodic sheen snapped by bolts of dissonance, playful folk melodies that turn awry, pizzicatos that barge in and leave through the back door. Indeed, you could say that this piece is Bartok’s Seventh String Quartet–except that it has already begun to display elements unique to Ligeti. The adagio movements are as beautiful and disturbing as a pollution-smeared urban sunset. His humor ranges from startling to satirical. Subtitled “Metamorphoses nocturnes,” this piece from what Ligeti calls his “prehistory” (before his 1956 emigration from Hungary) is startling even in structure (17 movements). The movements are so short (one is only 13 seconds long), that the piece doesn’t encourage leisurely contemplation.
More angular and consistent in mood is his String Quartet No. 2, penned 15 years later. His attention span has improved and his direction—through darkened halls and desolate landscapes–are rendered in sharp focus. Instead of the broken-down buildings of post-war Europe, he gives us entire cities, not pretty ones of course, but with legions of intriguing alleyways. Listen to the second movement (Sostenuto) and ask yourself if Ligeti’s grasp of his times–arch and unyielding–rings true. Composed in the same period, Ramifications sets the tenuous mood with its buzzing strings. Ligeti achieves a feeling of unease by tuning half the strings normally and the other half one quarter tone sharp. Subtle adjustments in volume and tempo construct spaces where, according to him, “decomposition is drawn into the music.” Like Bartok, he cuts off phrases just as they begin. The Sonata for Solo Cello is also from his “prehistoric” period. It opens with tones as doleful as any heard in a Renaissance song by John Dowland. The other movement’s frenetic structure reveals its debt to Bach. Of all the pieces on the disc, Melodien (1971) is the hardest bridge to cross, partly because its railings and girders are always shifting. It is an exercise in musical fermentation rather than abrupt effects. All of the pieces are played well on this disc, particularly String Quartet No. 2 by the LaSalle Quartet to whom it was dedicated.
PHILIP GLASS: Etudes for Piano, Vol. 1, Nos.1-10. Philip Glass, piano. Orange Mountain Music OMM009:
We have Philip Glass and the other seminal minimalists (Steve Reich and Terry Riley) to thank for delivering American audiences from the dogmatic academic serialists of the 1940’s to 1960’s. Of the three, Glass is the most popular. In fact, his music is singularily unique in appealing to lovers of popular and rock music. His music has found its way into films (Koyaanisquatsi, Powaqqatsi, and most recently Naqoyquatsi), symphonies, concertos, string quartets, and of course operas. Loosely defined as “gradual, rather than sudden change in the tonal, rhythmic, timbral, textural and other parameters of music,” minimalism is considered to be an American musical style even though its roots are found in Indian music, Indonesian gamelan music, Hindu and Tibetan Buddhist vocal meditation techniques, just to name a few.
As the composer mentions in the all too brief program notes, he began writing these etudes (studies) in the mid 1990’s to “provide new music for my solo piano concerts and “to expand my piano technique with music that would enhance and challenge my playing.” These are the first set of ten etudes with six of the next set of ten already completed. These short pieces vary in length from 3 _ to 61/2 minutes and can be characterized as meditative. There is a trance-like repetitive quality to the underlying rhythmic aspects of the music, but there is also an attractive melodic voice that often rises above the harmonic and rhythmic structure. Although these are distinct pieces, they flow together and often aren’t separated by any silence between tracks. It almost could be called a suite of etudes. While these works aren’t noted for their intellectual and emotional profundity, I did find myself becoming attached to their reflective and repetitive qualities. Pianist Glass is a persuasive advocate for his compositions and the sound is close but clear and not without sonic impact.
— Robert Moon
MOZART: Piano Sonatas KV 533/494, 545, 570 & 576 – Andreas Haefliger – Avie AV 0025 (69 mins.):
The young Swiss pianist Andreas Haefliger, who has made important recording for major labels (including Mozart, Schumann and Gubaidulina for Sony, and Schubert and Dvorak for Decca) resurfaces with an outstanding Mozart recital for the enterprising British label Avie.
The recital is notable both for the pearl-like beauty of the playing and the imaginative selection and sequencing of the sonatas. The latter is proof of Haefliger’s commitment to this music: I have never heard a recital where the so-called Easy Sonata (K. 545) did not come across as a trite, tinkling lightweight. Yet here, introduced by the enigmatic 533/494 coupling, and followed by two other less outgoing sonatas, 545 seems like a substantial statement of Mozart’s aesthetic.
Perhaps it’s Haefliger’s intense focus on the beauty of each note within a context of moderate speeds and subtly nuanced phrasing. It’s neither precious nor mechanical but it is riveting to the extent that each ending cadence, each trill becomes an event of almost aching sexuality. In taking a “less is more” approach, Haefliger reveals the composer’s spiritual angst to a degree rarely heard. His are revelations through reflection.
Recorded by Andreas Neubronner for Tritonus in Stuttgart, whose credits include Michael Tilson Thomas’s Mahler cycle with the San Francisco Symphony, the sound is elegant and limpid; if you have the patience to listen at low levels, you will be rewarded by sound of exquisite purity. Richard Wigmore’s absorbing liner notes cover the technical and historical background of the music as if they were Viennese sweets.
– Laurence Vittes
HUMMEL: Piano Sonata in F# Minor, Op. 81; Piano Sonata in D Major, Op. 106; Piano Sonata in F Minor, Op. 20 – Stephen Hough, piano – Hyperion CDA67390 69:20 (Distrib. Harmonia Mundi):
The music of Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778-1837) provides, for most musicologists, the link between Beethoven and Chopin, being infused with a dramatic ardor and a grandly flamboyant, improvisatory style, both at once. A pupil of Mozart, Clementi, and Salieri, Hummel really could do it all; but whether he did it with any lasting, emotional impact is still a debatable issue. In my own, exalted pantheon of great virtuosi, there are few great Hummel interpreters. I recall that Gyorgy Cziffra and Moiseiwitsch played the Rondo favori; Artur Balsam played a couple of concertos on an elusive LP; and Dino Ciani made some points with Hummel’s Sonata, Op. 13. It was only in the early 1990’s or so that I found Stephen Hough (on the Musical Heritage label) performing two concertos that my curiosity was renewed with any fervor.
This collection of piano sonatas reveals the strengths and defects of Hummel as a composer. The Op. 81 is the most daring of the three Hough traverses, almost pre-Schumann in its harmonic wanderings and in its scale, which is not too far from Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” and A Major Sonata, Op. 101. The stop-and-start machinations remind me of C.P.E. Bach and his “emotional” school of music, a clear departure from Classicism. There are bravura passages in thirds and fourths that punish the knuckles. There are some powerful outbursts in the slow movement, easily a forecast of Chopin. But where are the melodies? Thematically, I find Hummel rather uninspired, a judgment Albert Lockwood reached in the 1880’s.
The Sonata in F Minor (1807) and the D Major Sonata (1824) are both neo-classical, again with plenty of etude-filigree to challenge the performer, but not much to enchant the listener. There are triplets and left-hand cross-hand leaps, and the D Major sports several allusions to the nocturnes of John Field. But the substitution of figuration for themes proves to be rather vapid and tedious; I can listen to one of these sonatas anytime, but I would avoid gulping the whole group down at one sitting. What happens is that Hough manages to accrue honor to himself as a virtuoso and honor for Hummel as a virtuoso, but the tunesmith is nowhere to be found.
VILLA-LOBOS: Sinfonia No.10 “Amerindia” (Oratorio in 5 Parts for Orchestra, Chorus and Soloists) – Francisco Vas, tenor/Enrique Baquerizo & Santos Arino, baritones/Coral Universitat de Illes Balears/Coral Reyes Bartlet/Coro de Camara de Tenerife/Coro del Conservatorio Superior de Musica de Tenerife/Symphony Orchestra of Tenerife/Victor Pablo Perez – Harmonia mundi Spain HMI 987041:
Villa-Lobos created a vast amount of music and it inevitable that though much of it has been performed and recorded, there were a number of forgotten scores. This amazing oratorio is one of them – it only received its premiere recording three years ago on the Koch label (see our review in the July 2001 AUDIOPHILE AUDITION)
The work reflects the history of his native land with his usual vocabulary of color and variety. The enlarged percussion section adds to the exotic appeal of the work. The first part of the work is strictly instrumental, but the other four parts combine Portuguese, Latin and Tupinamba languages in a fusion of European and Indian cultures. It was composed for the 400th anniversary of the founding of Sao Paulo, Brazil in l952, but for various reasons was not actually premiered by the composer until 1957 in Paris. That premiere did not go well due to a number of problems in performance. The recording of 2000 by Gisele Ben-Dor tried to correct those problems, and is accompanied by lavish package and detailed notes. However, this second version from HM Spain wins on the basis of a better, more flowing performance with a larger chorus (four of them in fact) and a more transparent recording. I had no idea that Tenerife in the Canary islands of Spain was such a leading musical center.
Villa-Lobos’ musical plan employs three different musical styles to represent the three cultures involved in Sao Paulo.: The native culture – long melodies with many repeated intervals; the Portuguese – music of tonal ambiguity representing outside forces; the Afro-Brazilian population – syncopations, cross-rhythms and hemiolas. The second movement is War Cry, and laments the lost tranquility of the countryside. The third part is a festive Scherzo with three-against-two rhythmic patterns. The last two parts conform more closely to what we think of as an oratorio. The Amerindian intersperses his questions with the words of the choruses. Villa-Lobos may have had in mind the role of the Evangelist in Bach’s oratorios. (I noticed at one point the native Indians sing “I don’t want a woman whose legs are so thin that they coil around me like wild snakes. I don’t want a woman whose hair is so long that I get lost in it…” Well, chacun a son gout...)
The final part has a sunnier aspect and describes the Christmas story, closing with a choral declaration of the city’s modern name of Sao Paulo. Even without following the libretto the work is glorious in its exhuberant tone colors and choral sounds with the variety of colorful languages spoken. The orchestra is spiced up with a number of native Brazilian folk instruments and the percussion section is enlarged. There is so much going on here that one hankers for a multichannel hi-res version soon, although this one is certainly very acceptable.
– John Sunier
SCHUBERT: Octet, D. 803, op. posth. 166 – Camerata Freden – Tacet 133 (58 mins.):
The youthful Camerata Freden, Festival Ensemble of the Freden International Music Festival, sets a new standard for how Schubert’s famous Octet works, and whether the traditional notion of Viennese charm is a prerequisite to its interpretive success.
The answer to the latter question is a definite no, as the eight musicians led by violinist Adrian Adlam (also Artistic Director of the Festival) show that the music need not fawn and curtsey as each of the famous themes make their appearances. Instead, the ensemble takes a wide-eyed approach keyed to the stream of instrumental beauty that Schubert has created. Eschewing familiar phrasing choices that seem to have chiseled in stone, according to the truth put down by renowned groups like the Vienna Octet, Adlam and his crew takes a more direct route and opens up whole new vistas.
And while Adlam shows almost superhuman strength and virtuosity in his demanding role (you can’t realize how much physical work this Octet is for the first violinist until you have attended a live performance), the excellence of the music making extends to each player. If you want to single out any of them, it would have to French hornist Ron Schaaper, who lights up the sky with his virtuosity, and cellist Michel Dispa, whose playing of the great solo in the theme and variations movement sweeps the recorded field.
Tacet’s sound by Andreas Speer and Roland Kistner is rich in timbral glory and clear as a bell, its excellent inner detail lacking only the last bit of definition (perhaps achieved by the Tacet Real Surround Sound on the DVD Audio version). Oliver Buslau’s liner notes chronicle the theory and facts of the music’s composition in beautifully if straightforward written prose.
– Laurence Vittes
GUSTAV LEONHARDT = Recital of music by Hassler, Nicholas Strogers, Byrd, John Bull, Gibbons, Johann Pachelbel, J.C. Bach, Christian Ritter and J.S. Bach – Alpha 042 (70 mins.):
Any new recording from the great keyboard master Gustav Leonhardt would be a welcome delight. This new one from the enterprising French label Alpha (imported into the U.S. by Premiere Music Distributors at www.premieremusic.net) is doubly welcome because it offers an unexpected glimpse into Leonhardt’s more obscure repertoire in sound of audiophile quality, presented with the label’s usual intellectually stimulating sense of historical perspective.
The recital, which Leonhardt performs on a claviorganum by Matthias Griewisch (2001), comprising an Italian one-manual harpsichord and a chest-like chamber organ, and a German harpsichord with two keyboards by Anthony Sidey (1995) after the school of Gottfried Silbermann, comprises a diverse music voyage across Germany and Great Britain, beginning with a Canzon by Hassler and concluding with 32 minutes of Bach. Each performance seems to reside in a perfect stillness into which each note, each careful harmony enters with subtle precision and delight.
As with all Alpha releases (following the label’s motto, Ut pictura musica – Music is painting, painting is music), the sumptuous packaging includes a booklet whose text is keyed to a classical painting on the inside back cover (a detail of which is reproduced on the cover), in this case Pieter Jansz Saenredam’s Interior of St. Bavo’s Church in Haarlem (1648). Accordingly, the liner notes by Denis Grenier and Jean-Paul Combet are learned and rich in relevance: “Less than fifty years before the birth of the greatest architect of Western music,” Grenier writes, “Saenredam expresses the transcendent clarity, the monumentality and perfect form that were to be taken to hitherto unattained heights by J.S. Bach.” No surprise that the qualities Grenier describes in Saenredam’s painting are those that Leonhardt brings to his new recording and that Hugues Deschaux’s sound captures with such rare and delicate beauty.
– Laurence Vittes
SIR GRANVILLE BANTOCK: Overture to a Greek Tragedy, The Wilderness and the Solitary Place, Pierrot of the Minute, The Song of Songs – Elizabeth Connell, soprano/Kim Begley, tenor/Royal Philharmonic orchestra/Vernon Handley – Hyperion CDA67395:
Bantock came from a well-appointed Victorian family background and his mature works all were in the decade prior to the First World War. He enjoyed doing large-scale orchestral and choral works on exotic subjects. Many works were orchestral tone poems on classical plays, such as the opener on this disc. This is the first recording of The Wilderness – which was to have been part 6 of a ten-part Festival Symphony which retold the story of Christ. Pierrot was one of the composer’s most popular works during his life. It is a comedy overture with a program about Pierrot’s encounter with the Moon Maiden. The Song of Songs comes from the Bible, but Bantock responded to the words in terms of incidental color and epic drama rather than pious liturgical standards. The work originally involved six soloists, chorus and orchestra. The selections here include the second, third and fifth days, and this is the recording premiere of the latter two. A libretto is thoughtfully provided. Sonics are up to the usual high Hyperion standards but soprano Connell scoops a bit too much for my ears.
– John Sunier
DOMINICK ARGENTO: Casa Guidi – Five Songs for Mezzo soprano and Orchestra; Capriccio for Clarinet and Orchestra “Rossini in Paris:” In Praise of Music: Seven Songs for Orchestra – Frederica von Stade, mezzo/Burt Hara, clarinet/Minnesota Orchestra/Eiji Oue – Reference Recordings HDCD RR-100CD:
Argento has held a teaching position in Minneapolis since 1958, but has amassed a substantial catalog of works including 14 operas. His love of the human voice is shown both in his vocal and in his instrumental works, which often have lovely flowing melodies. Casa Guidi is his settings of excerpts from letters written by Elizabeth Barrett Browning to her sister. Case Guidi is the name of the stone house in which the Brownings settled after they eloped to Italy. The song cycle was written especially for von Stade to perform. Argento didn’t name his clarinet concerto as such out of respect for Mozart’s superb Clarinet Concerto. He then took the whimsical titles of three of Rossini’s “Sins of My Old Age” piano pieces [See Hi-Res reviews this issue] and used them for the three movements of the work, to indicate moods more than anything else. The third and longest has an appropriately rhythmic ostinato to it – it translates as The Little Pleasurable Train. The Orchestral Songs was composed in l977 for the 75th anniversary of the Minnesota Orchestra. Argento based each song on fragments of different ethnic music from around the world. The song titles are: For the healer David, For the God Apollo, For the Satyr Pan, For the Sorrower Orpheus, For the Angel Israfel, for the Saint Cecilia, For the child Mozart. Wide range and pristine sonics characterize this latest of Keith Johnson’s recording successes.
– John Sunier
RAVEL: Sonata Posthumous; Tzigane; ENESCU: Impressions of Childhood Op. 28; Sonata No. 3 Op. 25 – Leonidas Kavakos, violin; Peter Nagy, piano – ECM New Series ECM 1824:
This program was carefully assembled to illustrate a number of connections between the works and their respective composers. One element is the predeliction in French music for a touch of the exotic, and specifically in this case, for gypsy music. The other is the use of modal scales in much French music, and in this case also in the works of Enescu. The very early sonata of Ravel’s (published after his death) is said to have been inspired by the playing of fellow student (in Faure’s composition class) Enescu. Much later he composed his famous Tzigane which clearly captures the fire and passion of gypsy violinists. The Third Violin Sonata of Enescu makes extensive use of modality. Enescu – as did his fellow countrymen Bartok and Kodaly – later made a strong distinction between gypsy music and Roumanian music and strove to use the latter rather than the former. Kavakos plays with great gusto and ECM’s recorded quality is top flight as usual. (CDs of 80s vintage would be painful to audiophile ears with this type of violin sound.) This is a violin-piano program that will definitely not put you to sleep.
– John Sunier
Unfamiliar piano music from Spain, France and Greece on our last three classical discs this month…
MANUEL BLANCAFORT: Complete Piano Music Vol. 1 = Youthful pieces; Mountain Songs; Notes from Years Gone By; 12 Cançons (1916-19) – Miquel Villabla, piano – Naxos Spanish Classics 8.557332:
Blancafort’s family owned a pianola roll factory in Catalonia, and this was a prime source of his music education. He was for nationalism in music and wanted to promulgate Catalan culture in his works. His earliest efforts were miniatures of a popular nature based on traditional Catalan folk tunes. His piano music is generally tuneful, direct and strongly romantic in style. The Notes from Years Gone By is more inward-directed. The note booklet lists the titles of every miniature in this 37-track collection.
PAUL DUKAS: Complete Piano Music = Piano Sonata in E flat minor; La Plainte, au loin, du faune; Variations, Interlude and Finale on a Theme of Rameau; Prelude elegiaque – Chantal Stigliani, piano – Naxos 8.557053:
Dukas, best known for his Sorcerer’s Apprentice, destroyed most of his scores in the 1920s, leaving only those he felt the most perfect. His Piano Sonata is considered one of the finest works for the piano in the last century. It is in four movements and was dedicated to St.-Saens. Influences of Franck, Liszt and Beethoven are discernable, but it primarily shows Dukas’ refined style of great density and detail that demands very close listening. As with the St.-Saens dedication here, the other three works are dedicated to or inspired by other great composers. Debussy for La Plainte, Rameau in the case of the theme and 12 variations, and Haydn in the case of the closing prelude.
– John Sunier
Greek Rapture = MANOLIS KALOMIRIS: 5 Preludes for Piano; Chant a la Nuit (Second Rhapsody); YANNIS PAPAIOANNOU: Corsair Dances: Suite for Piano; MANOS HADJIDAKIS: For a Little White Seashell: Preludes and Dances for the Piano, op. 1 – Maria Choban, piano – Fireflight (no #):
Maria Choban was American-born of Greek parents. As a classically-trained pianist she wanted to learn what Greek composers had accomplished with Western musical means. She looked everywhere for Greek music, including visits to the Library of Congress. Finally she spent two years in Greece researching Greek piano literature, and returned to the U.S. with many works which she has been performing and in the case of this self-published CD, recorded. The only name which will be familiar to most Americans here is Hadjidakis, the composer of the score to Never on Sunday and other films. His Preludes and Dances is a tuneful little suite; the dances are of course Greek folk dances. Choban credits Kalomiris (who died in l962) as the major figure in art music of modern Greece. He was a strongly nationalist composer, employing folk songs in his music. All the music here is of interest and one can feel empathy for Choban’s slogan for her Fireflight label: Great music that missed the bandwagon, performed with the passion it deserves. It’s similar to the laudable discovery approach of labels such as Marco Polo. However, I found Choban’s passion often just a bit over the top – in other words too rapturous. The percussive aspect is fine and appropriate for some of the pieces, but their lyrical passages are lost in the sometimes thunderous passagework. Still, this is fascinating music to hear and some will want to get the CD. The web site is www.fireflightweb.com and the phone number is 503-690-9419.
– John Sunier