Classical CD Reviews
Classical CD Reviews, Part 1 of 2
Published on April 1, 2004
Part 1 of 2 [Part 2]
BIRTWHISTLE: The British Music Collection. Ensemble InterContemporain, Pierre Boulez, et al. Decca 468 804-2 (2 CDs):
In Alice in Wonderland, Alice has a great deal of trouble with a “little gold key.” At first, it’s too big to open the door she wants; then when she find a door that it fits, it’s not the one she wants. When she shrinks, the key is out of reach on the glass table. Listening to the music of British composer Harrison Birtwhistle is like struggling over Alice’s key. The first task is finding it. Surely there must be a key to these complex and intriguing structures. But where is it?
At first, a piece like Endless Parade seem like third stream jazz, with its seemingly melded jazz and classical elements. Yet this ebullient trumpet concerto belies categorization. Its lurking undercurrent constantly struggles to emerge, but is beaten back by the bright staccato tones of Elgar Howarth’s trumpet. Third stream would seem to apply more to Panic, the saxophone concerto. A chaotic opening and random direction, suffused with spiky energy, is reminiscent of the late work of Don Cherry or John Coltrane. Performed with hot lava passion by John Harle, the piece keeps up its traffic-jam intensity most of the way through until, at 11:50 it suddenly breaks into a disturbing moment of reflection. No, third stream is not the key here.
Earth Dances seems to progress toward development and uses heavily accented percussion. Yet there is no second-guessing where it is going. It invades your space like a week-old houseguest and changes direction with a snap of a temple block. The work is highly excitable: a mere thematic suggestion sets off into another inscrutable direction. Is that the key, over there behind that shifting tone cluster? Sorry. It might have been, but it’s gone.
Other works on this satisfying and mystifying two-CD set keep you guessing at all points: Tragoedia, Five Distances, Three Settings of Celan, Secret Theatre. The titles are as mystifying as the pieces. Once you hear them you don’t forget them. Their beauty is that Birtwhistle keeps you looking for that little golden key, yet never lets you find it– perhaps because it doesn’t exist.
COURVOISIER: Abaton. – Sylvie Courvoisier, piano; Mark Feldman, violin; Erik Friedlander, cello – ECM Stereo CD, ECM 1838/39, B0001308-02:
I have to indecently expose my prejudices from the start when writing about what I term “academic music” of the second half of the 20th century. Most often, but with a few exceptions, I just don’t like it. I feel the music of Stockhausen, Schoenberg, Berg, Ligeti, and Berio mannered in a fashion I find a dead end. I think the styles known as minimalism and neo-romanticism have begun to supplant it in the popular taste and in the conservatories. This modernist music seems on its way out, despite many attempts to revive it.
In his liner notes to this 2 CD colection, Thomas Steinfeld, in his thoughtful essay about the music of the Sylvie Courvoisier trio, Abaton, makes a telling observation. He writes: “…But newness has long lost its novelty, and the wildest of undertakings have become ordinary artistic fare. Indeed, the surreal can be provoked, incoherence can be summoned up at will, and for decades there have been familiar signals to indicate that a norm is being broken, a convention abandoned, and expectation thwarted. Intervals start leaping far beyond the fifth, a gigantic scratching, drumming and whistling ensues, and before long we hear Karlheinz Stockhausen twiddling the dials of a radio. At the end it all sounds like the country fair in Georg Büchner’s “Woyzeck,” except that we seem to hear a source reference for every idea. … Courvoisier … has also studied Arnold Schoenberg’s musical teachings and learned from them that even atonal series must be composed rather than produced with a throw of the dice…”
These thoughts seem to place the whole of modernism under an unflattering light. It has lost its appeal to newness. Its favorite tropes no longer generate a “primal and elemental amazement.” Its wildest undertakings have become ordinary. Which leaves us with a “gigantic scratching, drumming and whistling.” We hear the echoes of pioneering modernism only slightly refreshed in more recent works. Steinfeld, after passing such judgment on the style of music in the album, falls back on the taste of Sylvie Courvoisier. He claims that her application of these techniques is, somehow, above the herd. I’m not so sure. I think the music itself limits any of its practitioners – Sorry. The first CD of this collection (a more heavily arranged series of four pieces) doesn’t do it for me. It has its moments, but on the whole it doesn’t knock me out, or even raise a smile. Sylvie Courvoisier’s cool musical style isn’t enough to dissuade me of the difficulties with this school.
The second CD is a group of jazz-like improvisations named for fictional places, such as Brobdingnag, from Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. [Who was it that said, “Swift should have been named Sterne; and Sterne, Swift?” Sir Winston? George Bernard Shaw? Harold Bloom?] It is more spontaneous and more fun. I find more spits and giggles here. But not a great deal. Feldman and Friedlander are witty in their idiom but I still prefer Brubeck and Desmond, or Stephane Grapelli and Yo-Yo Ma. I wish I could wax more enthusiastic about this album, but this school of music just leaves me cold, and (I think) brings its practitioners down. Excu-you-ooze Me!! But in the end, Not Recommended.
-– Max Dudious
WYNER: The Music of Yehudi Wyner; The Second Madrigal, Quartet for Oboe and String Trio, Horntrio. – Numerous Assorted Artists/Yehudi Wyner, cond.– Bridge CD 9134:
Yehudi Wyner (b.1929) is a composer of long experience with modernist music and has developed the much sought-after combination of good “chops” and good taste. These three pieces were all completed between 1997 and 1999. The period of this music very much reflects the style I refer to as “academic music” of the second half of the 20th century. It is characterized by many of the tropes introduced by Karlheinz Stockhausen, Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, György Ligeti, et al, during the early Post WWII period. It is not my favorite period in music history nor my favorite style, I must confess. In Wyner’s competent hands it fares better than usual.
The Second Madrigal: Voices of Women (1999), scored for soprano and eleven instruments, features ten songs that serve as the unifying threads of each of the ten sections of the song-cycle (Could we call this a cantata?). The titles are: I Getting Up In Winter; II In The Morning; III Morning; IV When He Pressed His Lips; V The Second Madrigal; VI Thank You, My Fate; VII Cosmetics Do No Good; VIII The Greatest Love; IX Hopelessness; and X Question. They are sung in English. The soprano, Dominique Labelle, for whom it was written, does an excellent job with a tough assignment. The ensemble weaves its tapestry very artfully. “Good job” to Daniel Stepner, vn; Judith Eissenberg, vn; Mary Ruth Ray, va; Rafael Popper-Keizer, clo; Carolyn Davis Fryer, cbass; Susan Gall, flt; Peggy Pearson, oboe; Katherin Matasy, clnt; Janet Underhill, bsoon; Jean Rife, horn; Robert Schulz, pcus; Yehudi Wyner, cond. Wyner writes: “Verdi used to speak of his need for ‘la parola scenica,’ the words that encouraged the scene to be immediately suggestive and clear and which also allowed the music to animate and provide new values to the text. I have tried to choose texts which embody ‘la parola scenica’ and seek to liberate the music which may lie dormant in those texts.” In large measure, Wyner succeeds. He is a good musician.
Quartet for Oboe and String Trio (1999), was written for the terrific Boston oboist, Peggy Pearson. Wyner’s album notes describe the compositional practice and why he made certain decisions to include this but not that, or to employ a particular device. Having heard Peggy Pearson play two of Bach’s cantatas, and how she was able to develop the long singing line necessary for her to play oboe in duet with the Mezzo-Soprano soloist, I feel the beauty of her tone, and the plaintive quality of her phrasing was lost in this very staccato piece. This is a good example of how even the best modernist compositions can bring some of the instrumental talent down from what they do best. But, on the whole, an interesting effort.
Horntrio (1997) is filled with modernist devices. It is “very quick, full of fragments, spiky figures, and contradictory events. Toward the end of this short movement, a grave and mysterious dirge-like music interrupts with no apparent preparation and is followed by a very compact coda conclusion.” Wyner describes these traits as if he’s proud of them, and ironically, they are precisely the practices of modernism that I find most difficult to value. Still, he pulls them off in pretty good shape. This is an admittedly good example of a style for which I have little sympathy. If you are a fan of post WW II “modernist” music, you might like this. A very exacting performance, with good engineering and production values. With reservations, Recommended. I think this music is for those who already have a grounding in the period and its practices.
– Max Dudious
RUDERS: Guitar Concertos & Solos. – David Starobin, guitar; Speculum Musicae/Donald Palma, cond.; Odense Symphony Orchestra/Jan Wagner, cond. – Bridge CD 9136:
Somewhere in Dante’s Inferno there is the realm of adulterous lovers whose punishment for their worldly sins is to copulate throughout eternity without fulfillment. I recently dreamed that I was living in my own private Hell, wherein my punishment for worldly sins was to listen to modernistic, what I call “academic music” of the 2nd half of the 20th century. Here the music of Schoenberg, Berg, Stockhausen, and Ligeti and those lesser composers whose music they inspired plays on throughout eternity. And here I sit, made to listen to them by my infernal tormenter, my editor — over and over and then over and over. Egad! I was pleased to awake in a cold sweat.
Don’t get me wrong. The work of Poul Ruders on this album is this type of modernist in style, but he does it well. As a matter of fact, his treatment of the Paganini Variations (Guitar Concerto No. 2) is one of the more successful pieces in this style I can remember. That may be due to having the work of Paganini as its foundation. Or it may be due to having the creativity of Poul Ruders guiding its superstructure. Either way, it’s better than O.K., if you don’t mind, as I do, the characteristic tropes of this kind of music. I just can’t get past the disjointedness. The emphasis on sound qua sound. Thankfully, they don’t figure as largely in this one work.
A good example of how Ruders composes is the “Cadenza for All” in Psalmodies or (Guitar Concerto No. 1), Section VIII. In this section Ruders deals with the descending glissando. He does it with the guitar and with different sections of the orchestra. It is an etude focused on the glissando demonstrating how it can be done away from the piano or the violin, on which it is apparently easier. There is a famous ascending glissando for the clarinet at the beginning of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. But I think it is more of an isolated coloristic device. In Ruders’ score it becomes a three minute discourse on how to do a glissando breaking the actual slide into its component notes. It is a little jewel. Fascinating. In the 16th variation on a theme by Paganini he uses the strings after the fashion of György Ligeti, whose music came to prominence in Stanley Kubrick’s film, 2001. Ruders seems a bit taken by Ligeti and his various tropes are heard here and there in Ruders’ works. Which is not to say he heists them, but he uses them with good effect to his own ends, most notably in the 16th and 20th variations. Rachmaninoff would have enjoyed them.
David Starobin does an outstanding job on guitar, playing music that demands the highest virtuoso technique – both the solo works (Etude and Ricercare, 1994; and Chaconne, 1997) and the two Concertos. Orchestral work is under good control. The tricky balance between the not-loud acoustic guitar and sometimes very loud orchestra is quite well managed, and the hall acoustic in the Paganini Variations is noticeable. I’d say the production values of this set of recordings is of the highest level, and the recordings are very well engineered. I’m sure Aaron Shearer is delighted to hear how effortlessly his pupil Starobin plays this program. In all, a series of modern works for guitar that overcome the limitations of the “modernist” idiom somewhat. I guess that places Poul Ruders in the vanguard of those composers who use the idiom. He has won me over. I sense myself moving from Hell to Purgatory. Thank you, Poul Ruders and David Starobin. You have elevated me, I hope, on my spiritual path.
– Max Dudious
VALENTIN SILVESTROV (born 1937): Requiem for Larissa, for mixed choir and orchestra (1997-1999) – National Choir of Ukraine “Dumka” and National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine conducted by Volodymyr Sirenko – ECM New Series 1778:
Alfred Schnittke referred to the Ukrainian Valentin Silvestrov as “the greatest composer of our generation,” Arvo Pärt expressed similar sentiments in a recent New Yorker interview, and both in the Ukraine and across the former Soviet Bloc there can be few composers today who are held in comparable esteem by their peers.
Requiem for Larissa reflects on the life shared by Silvestrov and his wife, the musicologist and literary scholar Larissa Bondarenko. It was composed in the wake of her sudden death in a Kiev hospital in May 1996, and is founded in a slow-moving sequence of liturgy based on the Latin Mass for the Dead, giving way to an exquisite setting of a poem by the great 19th-century Ukrainian poet, Taras Shevchenko, then to a lovely piece modeled on Mozart, before returning to slow, slower and more somber. It’s not really a piece that will grab you all at once; instead, it is for listening to in the quiet of the night, to hear the dimensions of man and the depths of his sadness.
The critic, novelist and opera librettist Paul Griffiths’ liner notes set the stage for this vastly beautiful and profound music: “Time in Valentin Silvestrov’s music is a black lake. The water barely moves; the past refuses to slide away; and the slow, irregular stirrings of an oar remain in place.” The recording is not audiophile in the conventional sense—the painfully intimate nature of the message precludes that—but it handles the wide range of challenges so superbly that it can serve as a touchstone for a sound system that has emotion as well as dynamic range and an accurate sense of soundstage.
- Laurence Vittes
PURCELL: Dido and Aeneas – Susan Graham, mezzo-soprano/ Ian Bostridge, tenor/Camilla Tilling soprano – Le Concert d’Astree/ Emmanuelle Haim, harpsichord & direction – Virgin Veritas 7243 5 45605 2 1:
Dido and Aeneas may be called “an opera in miniature.” Taking less than one hour to perform and with no single number much more than 100 bars in length, Purcell has created a magnificent Baroque demi-opera that is musically and dramatically complete. The pace is furious but the emotional impact of the music builds relentlessly, never seeming hurried despite its brevity.
Commissioned 1683-1684 for court performance, Dido and Aeneas has frequently been revised and recorded with differing forces. Here Emmanuelle Haim directs the period-instrument Concert d’Astree comprised of ~25 instrumentalists and the 14 members of the European Voices in a tight-knit, vibrant reading of Purcell’s masterpiece. The seamless interplay between soloists, chorus and orchestra is beautifully rendered, leading inexorably to the emotional impact of Dido’s Lament and the opera’s concluding measures.
Susan Graham is a ravishing Dido; the character of her voice, diction and phrasing portray the vulnerability of this doomed Queen. Ian Bostridge is an heroic, fallible Aeneas. Realized too late, the utter tragedy of the hero’s decision to leave Carthage permeates Mr.Bostridge’s final arias.
Recorded at the Arsenal, Metz, France in 2003, the sonic presentation is deep and precisely directional, and the balance between voices and instruments seems right. There is a sweetness about this recording that brings to mind the finest analog recordings. For lovers of Baroque music and of all opera, this Virgin Veritas recording is not to be missed.
– Ronald Legum
Violin Fantasies – Jennifer Koh, violin/Reiko Uchida, piano – Cedille Records CDR 9000 073:
The rather pedestrian title in no way prepares the listener for what a truly sensational disc this is! Awards are often given for best instumental, orchestral, vocal, chamber music discs. I find Cedille Records CDR 90000 073 simply one of the few great CDs.
Violin Fantasies is a total success. Fantasy in context refers to music composed in the freesest possible form for that composer . Three violin-piano fantasies-Schubert, Schumann and Schoenberg plus a brief Fantasy for solo violin by Ornette Coleman comprise this diverse and challenging program.
The development of the violin-piano fantasy from Schubert through Schoenberg is magnificently represented by these performances.The Schubert C major Fantasy, long one of my favorites,D.934,presents incomparable Schubertian lyricism amidst virtuoso demands /rich harmonies and cyclical use of themes. Jennifer Koh plays a 1727 Ex Grumiaux Ex General Dupont Stradivarius which sounds gorgeous in all ranges and levels of intensity. Her intonation and phrasing is flawless. Ms. Koh studied with Jaime Laredo at The Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Mr Laredo has recorded the complete violin music of Schubert for Dorian. I find Ms.Koh’s recording of this C major Fantasy superior to Mr.Laredo’s fine recording.
The Schumann Fantasy is a concerto in miniature,displaying virtuosity and almost constant motion..Ms. Koh and ReikoUchida are dazzling as they segueway from seamless dialog into piano accompaniment for the brilliant solo violin. This is passionate music, wonderfully executed.
The Phantasy for violin and piano (1949) by Arnold Shoenberg is his last instrumental serial work. It is a confrontational, virtuosic rhapsody for violin with
random, expletive comments from the piano.Having only limited exposure to this work, I find the Koh-Uchida performance very finished and curiously satisfying .
Trinity, a six+ minute fantasy for unaccompanied violin by Ornette Coleman
presents free form themes taken up by the violin and developed almost as jazz improvisation. It defines the late 20th century essence of fantasy. The piece is gorgeously performed with impressive tonal palatte by Jennifer Koh.
Judith Sherman recorded these Fantasies in Feruary-March 2003 at the Academy of Arts and Letters auditorium in New York. The recording is expertly balanced in a moderate size space with an impression of ideal reverberation.The excellent Cedille notes are by Andrea Lamoreaux, Music Director of WFMT-FM Chicago and Ms.Koh. This disc is a MUST HAVE.
– Ronald Legum
BERLIOZ: La Révolution Grecque; Grandes Oeuvres Chorales. – Choeur ‘Les Elements,’ Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse./Michel Plasson, cond.– Stereo CD, EMI 7243 5 57490 2 5:
Some music-lovers hate Berlioz’ work. Of them I ask, “How can you hate Berlioz’ music and call yourself a music-lover?” Who was it who first said? “You never know, ya know.” Ah, yes. Cindy Lauper. When you think of Schubert, you think of his predecessors; Bach, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. When you think of Berlioz there are no predecessors. He seems to have sprung from the forehead of Zeus, sui generis, a mature musical personality already formed with no musical parents. His innovations and contributions to European classical music are so many and varied that whole books have been written about them. He began his music studies at age 23, and at age 27 he wrote his Symphonie Fantastique. And yet there are his detractors who would make of him a mere colorist, an innovative orchestrator. You never know, indeed. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music (1980) says, “His extravagances in his scores, no longer very remarkable but ahead of their time, diverted critical attention, even among his admirers, from the classical purity of his melody and the Beethovenian grandeur of his command of dramatic contrasts. Today, the opera Les Troyens, the Grand Messe des morts [now known as his Requiem], and the Nuits d’été (forerunner of Mahler’s song-cycles with orchestra) are recognized for their poetry and originality.” I’d add Berlioz is by anyone’s measure a truly great composer whose overtures alone would rank him with Rossini.
This two CD set of Choral Works is a two hour anthology of some of his lesser known compositions, and it reflects some of his earliest and latest efforts, though concentrating on his most prolific middle period. I think this music is for the already converted Berlioz fans, not for initiates. It employs a range of moods and a variety of forces ranging from female chorus and orchestra; mixed chorus and orch.; to 2 basses, mixed chorus and orchestra; tenor, female chorus and orch.; tenor, bass, male chorus & piano; etc. etc. The soloists are: Rolando Villazon, ten.; Nicolas Rivenq, bar.; and Laurent Naouri, bass. David Bismuth is heard on piano; Frank Villars on Harmonium. The recording was done in Toulouse, Halle aux Grains, in April 2003. The hall acoustic is excellent.
I’ve never heard most of these compositions before. They strike me as good examples of Berlioz’ choral works. They display many of his compositional traits, his favorite tropes, his purity of melody, his sense of grandeur, his flexibility, his ability to write for occasions, such as a cantata on the death of the Emperor Napoleon, or a “Warriors’ Song,” or a “Locomotive’s Song,” as well as a “Sacred Song,” and a “Hymn for the Consecration of the New Tabernacle.” All of these pointing toward his Nuits d’été (Summer Nights). The album notes opine, “… his handling of the text could not be more skillful and apt, and his light touch with the orchestra, especially the woodwind, is something we must recognize as entirely characteristic. Berlioz could and did roar like a lion; in such refined choruses as these he sings like a nightingale.”
What we have here is an attempt to communicate the varied choral writing of a master: some from his early career, many from mid-career, and three from his final years. They show his development as an artist, his ability to write for a wide array of emotional effects, his mastery of many forms. Berlioz’ first student composition was an opera, and his second an oratorio. These are the musical genres he was drawn to, and at which he excelled. This collection is a perfect reference for students of his work, and a welcome addition for Berlioz lovers. Recommended.
— Max Dudious
BRUCE ADOLPHE: Ladino Songs of Love and Suffering, Mikhoels the Wise (excerpt), Out of the Whirlwind. – Lucy Shelton, sop; Eliot Fisk, guitar; David Jolley, French horn; Erie Mills, sop; Nathaniel Watson, bar; Seattle Symphony/Gerard Schwarz, cond: John Aler, ten; Phyllis Pancella, mezzo-sprano; CCM Wind Symphony/Rodney Winther, cond.– Naxos Stereo CD, 8.559413.
This is another in the Milken Archive series of American Jewish Music, and it is a series of attempts by composer Bruce Adolphe to set various documents to contemporary music. Some succeed brilliantly: most of the others do not. To explain myself I guess I ought to get my prejudices out on the table right from the start. The idiom of what I think of as “academic music”of the 2nd half of the 20th century is not to my liking. Unfortunately, Bruce Adolphe was educated when such music was enjoying its greatest vogue. Signs suggest it will prove to be a dead end. Nowadays, there are fewer compositions being written in this style, which has already given way to “minimalism”and “neo-romanticism” in popular taste and the conservatories.
The music has little melodic content that you come away from performances whistling. As there is no base of memorable melody lines, it is hard to recognize what might be a perfectly dazzling set of variations, or a subtle set of harmonic shifts, or a polyphonic development. Every phrase of this style stands alone, new, neo-natal (or just born) in time. The phrases go from one to another with a minimal sense of connection. Moreover, the compositions are like charm bracelets where each charm may be completely unrelated to the next. So we examine them each out of musical context. In the best of this type of music, say Arnold Schoenberg’s string quartets, there are startling, if isolated, moments musicaux. These are set up as stratagems almost, punchlines to musical jokes, or musical declamations that summarize or invert what Schoenberg has been doing in a given composition, or movement within a composition. There is some substance there for the listener to have as a reward for his attention. In lesser hands these rewards are meager. Bruce Adolphe is not up to the standards set by Schoenberg. Nonetheless, he has his moments.
I found affecting the closing soprano aria, “Lullaby of Birobidzhan,” from the Mikhoels the Wise excerpt, the orchestral playing by the Seattle Symphony under Gerard Schwarz quite good, if mannered. I found most of Out of the Whirlwind moving, though I couldn’t decide if it was due to the sadness of the poetry, and my conditioned response to it, or the music which I found arresting if only in isolated spurts. Again, the accompaniment of the College-Conservatory of Music Wind Symphony, under Rodney Winther, was very apt. Bruce Adolphe is obviously a talented composer who knows how to produce evocative effects from an orchestra or a soprano-guitar- French horn trio. I wonder what he’d be able to do if he turned his talent to minimalism or neo-romanticism. I’m sure compositions in those styles would broaden his listener base.
This album is an interesting example of what can be done by a composer writing in the “academic style” of the 2nd half of the 20th century. It has extraordinarily good musicians playing and singing in very good recording venues. Apparently no expense has been spared in the production values. The recording engineering is excellent. The resulting CD is excellent. Everything works. This is an extraordinary album for the student who would know more of this type of music, what works, and what doesn’t. A very mixed bag, but not for me. Recommended, just barely.
– Max Dudious.
BLOCH: Suites 1-3 for Unaccompanied Cello; Meditation hebraique; Jewish Life, Nos. 1-3; Nigun; Nirvana for Piano Solo – Emmanuelle Betrand, cello/Pascal Amoyel, cello – Harmonia Mundi HMC 901810 72:16:
Ernest Bloch (1880-1959) is a Swiss Jew who settled in America and built up a body of compositions that combine a strict European pedagogy with his distinctly ethnic voice. A Bible reader and scholar, Bloch made his music in a responsorial mode to his Biblical interests in Job, Daniel, Isaiah, and The Song of Songs. His reverence for cellist Pablo Casals inspired the 1924 Meditation hebraique which follows the 1916 Schelomo as a testimony of his fervent, liturgical spirit. Jewish Life, like Baal Shem, is in three movements, of which the second, Supplication, has that declamatory, cantorial quality we associate with Bloch’s music.
The Cello Suites are a product of both Bloch’s 1920s neo-classicism and of his competing with Britten’s simultaneous interest in composing cello music, 1964-1971. If Britten’s muse were Mstislav Rostropovich, Bloch’s was Zara Nelsova, for whom he composed all three, and he dedicated the first two to her. The mixture of Bach polyphony and dance forms with Jewish ardor and modal coloring is distinctive, and the tonal beauty of each suite is appealing. Some will find the cello version of Nigun even more compelling than its usual violin incarnation.
No notes are provided about Emmanuelle Bertrand, but she plays with vigor and obvious sympathy for each of the works. The Cello Suites are uniformly dark, minor key compositions; so, I advise taking them in smaller doses than a complete run-through. The solo piano piece, Nirvana, has no date given; but it has obvious debts to the opening of Liszt’s Funerailles and to Debussy. The glossy sheen of the piece may not achieve Eastern heaven, but it has a luminosity that reminds me of Gurdieff’s awkward attempts at composition, here made by a more secure hand.
PLEYEL: Violin Concerto in D Major; Serenade for Violin and Cello Solo, String Orchestra and Two Horns – Vilmos Szabadi, violin; Peter Szabo, cello; Erdody Kamarazenekar condcuts Erdody Chamber Orchestra – Hungaraton HCH 32241 56:06 (Distrib. Qualiton):
Volume Two of the Complete String Concertos of Ignace Pleyel (1757-1831) includes some charming, if undistinguished. music that sounds like Haydn with bits of Mozart mixed in. At one time among the most celebrated of Europe’s composers, Pleyel’s work has fallen into obscurity; so, we can be grateful that some talented instrumentalists are taking up his mantle again. A competent kapellmeister and more than competent master of diverse forms, Pleyel seems to employs the three-movement format for his Viotti-like concertos; the recording gives us the alternative ending, a 4/4 Rondo, to his violin concerto. The Violin Concerto (1787) sounds like a cross between Mozart’s K. 412 D Major Horn Concerto and the Haydn C Major Violin Concerto. Its Largo is worth re-hearing. If you dropped the needle, as it were, on this music and told me it was by young Mozart or Spohr, I would not argue. The Serenade (1780) exists in multiple editions, like most of Pleyel. ! This version is in four movements in classical sonata-form, minuet, adagio and rondo. The parts are grateful for each of the soloists, but I cannot say the piece competes well with Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante. It could be a piece by Michael Haydn, who also favored big concertante forms. Musicians Szabadi and Szabo play a lovely violin and cello, respectively, and I for one would like to hear them in the Brahms Double Concerto.
BACH, J.S.: Six Suites for Solo Cello – Sergei Istomin – Analekta Stereo FL 2 3114-5:
The intellectual challenge of music reviewing is, one never knows exactly what one will get for review. One often finds the unexpected in the monthly box of goodies. Then one has to devise a small essay appropriate to the music at hand. So it was with the usual curiosity that I plopped the disk of well known cello suites into my tray of surprises. And, indeed, this was a great surprise. Here were the Bach suites all new and fresh, perhaps due to the Russian conservatory trained Sergei Istomin, or due to his original instrument approach to these suites, or due to the period-correct practices outlined in newly discovered performance manuals. These suites were a new venture into old terrain. This time I wore some period-correct filters over my regular eyeglasses.
Over the years, I have listened to two particular sets of this music. One performed by Pierre Fournier, the renown French cellist (on Archiv label LPs), whose style on his recordings (1960) follows the lead of Pablo Casals and emphasizes the light, dance-like qualities of the tempi suggested in the titles; Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, Gavotte, and Gigue, all dances of the day. The other set, performed by Mstislav Rostropovich (on EMI label CDs) – another Russian conservatory trained soloist considered the greatest cellist of his generation – whose style on his recordings (1995) is considerably more dramatic, aiming (as he says in the album notes) for the big emotional effects where possible. Slava, as he is called, seemed to play these suites as pure Romantic era music by de-emphasizing the dance qualities, which pleased some and infuriated others. Istomin plays the same notes, but his interpretation is one developed out of the growing information base of performance practices of Bach’s era. Since Fournier’s and Rostropovich’s student days, many old manuals of how-to-play various instruments have been discovered. This new information has led to a handful of wonderful new interpretations of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, for example. Here is a new set (2004) of the solo cello suites, played on a period-correct instrument, tuned to A-415 for a somewhat darker sound, informed by performance manuals of the period.
The first thing that struck my ear was the call-and-response characteristic of many passages. We know Bach didn’t want for inventiveness. Yet, he wrote in a number of repeat passages. Istomin often drops the volume level on the second of these passages (the response), and in so doing creates the illusion of a dialogue with another instrument farther away, which requires consummate control. This stylistic trope is also found in the most recent of the Vivaldi recordings. Istomin often uses a more relaxed tempo, another period influenced mannerism. Rostropovich, from the outset of the Prelude to the first suite (G Major), takes the tempo to an agitated state that brings the listening exercise to a highly emotional plane. Fournier, liberally applies rubato to generate syncopation, emphasizing the dance quality of the music. Istomin, in that same Prelude, plays at a slower, more cerebral pace, which allows the listener to reflect on the sonorities and harmonies he hears. A- 415 tuning takes the treble edginess down a tad, compared with A- 440, and with the relaxed tempi makes for cooler, more reflective auditioning.
Istomin’s performances are a good introduction to the music for a student just learning about Bach, or a welcome addition to a collection rife with garden-variety Bach interpretations. Istomin’s reading is arresting. It is patiently conceived, well reconstructed, and consistently period-correct throughout. These are exceptionally well played, well-recorded cello suites. Istomin is a rare musician. His Bach, quite revelatory. A must-have if you like Bach.
- Max Dudious
SIBELIUS: Violin Concerto in D Minor , Op. 47/KHACHATURIAN: Violin Concerto in D Minor
Sergey Khachatryan, violin
Emmanuel Krivine conducts Sinfonia Varsovia
Naive Classics V 4959 69:53 (Distrib. Naxos):
Sergey Khachtryan (b. 1985) was the big winner of the VIII International Jean Sibelius Competition in Helsinki. The performance captured here was taped in Warsaw in 2003. Collectors may recall Emmanuel Krivine’s work in Mozart that appeared on the Denon label several years back. A pupil of Yehudi Menuhin and Karl Bohm, Krivine took up the mantle of Sinfonia Varsovia after Menuhin toured with the ensemble and the Polish Chamber Orchestra.
I must say I find Khachtryan very impressive, delivering one of the most intimate renditions of the Sibelius Concerto I have ever heard. The smooth and suave playing has elements of Kogan, certainly, but the exalted line rivals Kremer and Oistrakh. The dark hues of the orchestra in the second movement Adagio di molto make a many-layered, multi-textured dialogue of knotty power. The Khachaturian, written for Oistrakh as an explosive, virtuoso vehicle in Armenian colors, has been effective with Oistrakh and with other brilliant soloists, like Szeryng and Ricci. Khachatryan and Krivine whip up a fine fettle for this reading of the Khachaturian, making it shimmer and shine. As a debut album for this young firebrand, this disc is most impressive. Now, let us hear him in rarer and more refined repertory.
ORIGINAL MASTERS: The Singles – DG 474 576-2 (2 CDs):
From October 1953, alongside the newly-established 33 1/3 rpm LP, the seven-inch 45 rpm single played a significant role in Deutsche Grammophon’s release schedules. Released regularly between 1953 and 1965—more than 1,200 were produced—45s appeared in a number of series and styles. Making no claims to being systematic, DG have compiled 16 examples in this 2-CD set, including all the original album covers. It’s a collector’s delight, both as a snapshot of what was considered to have widespread commercial appeal in a time almost forgotten; and for the wonderful artwork.
Adding to the sense of delight, many of the best things in this anthology are being made available for the first time on CD: three arias sung by the delightful Rita Streich, the Koeckert Quartet’s aristocratic recording of Hugo Wolf’s Italian Serenade, a Trio Sonata of Tartini played with unimaginable sweetness and pure intonation by David Oistrakh and his son Igor, a wonderful waltz sequence from Der Rosenkavalier played by the Berlin Philharmonic under Eugen Jochum, the incomparable Canadian tenor Léopold Simoneau in arias by Verdi and Flotow, and a few selections by Serge Jaroff’s Don Cossacks Choir.
It’s all very anachronistic, and perhaps a bit provincial, but as a collection of cultural artifacts that once attempted (and not without success) to salvage Germany’s standing among nations, it shows touching and admirable pride. The remastering is immaculate, and the liner notes by David Butchart are a model of useful information, efficiently presented. Don’t miss this set: It may be just a trifle in the grand scheme of things, as the 45s were themselves, but once it is gone you will be sorry you missed it for a very long time to come. [If this was a pop singles project, fans would demand having repressings of the individual original 45rpm discs with all the artwork!...Ed.]
- Laurence Vittes