Classical CD Reviews
Classical CD Reviews, Part 2 of 3
Published on May 1, 2004
SIBELIUS: Symphony No. 3 in C Major, Op. 52; Symphony No. 7 in C Major, Op. 105 – Sir Colin Davis conducts London Symphony Orchestra
LSO OO51 53:44 (Distrib. Harmonia Mundi):
Two live performances of Sibelius symphonies recorded at the Barbican Center, September-October 2003 under the direction of Sir Colin Davis, who impressed many with his complete Sibelius cycle with the Boston Symphony almost a generation ago. The C Major Symphony No. 3 (1904-07) remains the problem child among the Sibelius symphonies, resisting easy description as neo-classical or as an “economical” response to the issues of symphonic composition after the large, romantic canvasses of the first two symphonies. Commentators often point out the danger of anti-climax in the work’s last movement; certainly its unorthodox, non-histrionic sensibility eluded Karajan, who never took the piece on in his several Sibelius surveys. Kletzki and Barbirolli made sense of the piece, even wringing out some tender beauties in the Andantino second movement. The C Major Symphony No. 7 is a one-movement, organic composition that might have taken its cue from Debussy’s use of rondo and fanta! sia in Jeux.
Davis and the LSO play both of these Northern works with a deliberate pace and a clear, chamber-music sonority. The approach to the Op. 105 is extremely broad, with Davis’ permitting his strings and winds to savor the shimmering sounds each choir makes, especially in the Vivacissimo section of the work. After the grumbling outpouring of the bass, the lighter sections suggest the “dancing rocks” from Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan.” Its more intense, stringent sections have the same urgency we hear in Tapiola. I find the entire disc disc eminently enjoyable and thoroughly idiomatic for Sibelius. My only quibble, constant with LSO releases, is the shortness of the program, which could easily accommodate En Saga and one of the lovely sets of Historic Scenes we do not hear enough enough.
Symphonies Concertantes = DANZI, RITTER, HOFFMEISTER, CRUSELL, SCHNEIDER, KOZELUCH, PLEYEL, WINTER, ABEL – Consortium Classicum/ Dieter Klöcker, Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields/Iona Brown – CPO 777 009-2 (2 CDs):
In 1977, as the analog vinyl era was heading into its Indian summer, Electrola in Germany released a 5-LP set titled Konzertante Sinfonien. Featuring the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, arguably the leading chamber orchestra at the time, and Dieter Klöcker’s Consortium Classicum, certainly the best wind band, the twelve concertos represented the high point of sophisticated galant charm in the heyday of Mozart and Beethoven. The Electrola set was never available in the U.S. except as an import and has never, to my knowledge, been available on CD. CPO must be congratulated for reissuing the entire set as Volume 10 of their Dieter Klöcker Edition.
With one exception, the high point of sophisticated galant charm is not like finding some Mozart or Beethoven you’ve never heard before. The exception is Georg Abraham Schneider’s Sinfonia Concertante for violin and viola. In fact, when I reviewed for Gramophone a coupling of the only other concertos for the same instruments, by Mozart and Thomas McKinley, I commented, “Perhaps Glenn Dicterow and Karen Dreyfus (the performers) will find room for the Sinfonia Concertante by Georg Abraham Schneider (1770-1839) on their next joint recording. The only recording to date, by Iona Brown and the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, shows Schneider’s concerto to be an exciting tour de force with a killer finale that will have audiences roaring in the aisles.” In his liner notes, Klöcker dismisses the viability of the comparison, so you will have to judge for yourself. I stick by my original statement.
The best second-tier works here are a wonderful concerto for two bassoons by August Ritter, and a dopey but endearing tour de force by Leopold Kozeluch for piano, mandolin, trumpet and double bass. The concertante writers were nothing if not inventive!
The sound cleans up some of the distortions of the original vinyl, but still has to wrestle with the tight miking on the solo instruments at the expense of orchestral dignity (peaky highs in the woodwinds). As on the originals, depth quite good but spatial identification a little vague. The liner notes are even-handed in their evaluation of this minor repertoire, but gratifyingly thorough (CPO’s beautiful typography makes reading them, unaided or not, a delight).
– Laurence Vittes
DVORAK: String Quartet No. 12 in F Major, Op. 96 “American”; Terzetto in C for 2 Violins and Viola, Op. 74; 5 Bagatelles for 2 Violins, Cello and Harmonium, Op. 47 – Prazak Quartet/Jaroslav Tuma, harmonium
Praga Digitals PRD 250 110 63:12 (Distrib. Harmonia Mundi):
Studio recordings by the Prazak Quartet (estab. 1978) made in January, 1998 of three of Dvorak’s intimate chamber works, these are lovely and poised performances. I have always had a difficult time coming around to Dvorak’s 1887 Terzetto, which sounds like a cross between Beethoven’s string trios and one of Mozart’s duos for violin and viola. In four movements, it has the viola’s doubling as a continuo and a a bass line in canon, all of which make me wonder if the peice isn’t meant as a kind of competition etude. The last movement is a more approachable theme-and-variations that could be an homage to Haydn. The 5 Bagatelles of 1878 are always charming; and I have found them delightful ever since Firkusny and the Juilliard Quartet introduced them to me on vinyl. The harmonium playing of Mr. Tuma is sweet and ingenuous, and the whole series chugs along in the manner of a salon set of Slavonic Dances. The big work is the ubiquitous “American” Quartet of 1893, composed in Spilville, Iowa and redolent with Native-American and Negro folk elements. The real test of this piece is the D Minor Lento, a dramatic, almost liturgical cantilena of profound beauty, here woven in long, thin lines of intimate character. The Prazak tend to restrain their vibrato, so their tone is lean and elastic, a model of classical clarity. The inner voices fo Dvorak’s openwork phrases are distinct and harmonically layered. Quietly recorded, the whole disc kept my attention, and I recommend this disc to anyone desiring a solid trio of essential, Dvorak chamber pieces.
Five different keyboard artists are featured on the next group of discs…
RACHMANINOV: Transcriptions = BACH: Suite from Partita in E Major/SCHUBERT: Wohin?/RACHMANINOV: Lilacs; Daisies; Variations on a Theme of Corelli, Op. 42/MENDELSSOHN: Scherzo from A Midsummer Night’s Dream/KREISLER: Liebesleid; Liebesfreud/BIZET: Minuet from L’Arlesienne/TCHAIKOVSKY: Lullaby, Op. 16, No. 1/MUSSORGSKY: Hopak/RIMSKY-KORSAKOV: Flight of the Bumble Bee/LISZT: Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 – Olga Kern, piano – Harmonia Mundi HMU 907336 72:35:
I recently reviewed Van Cliburn Competition winner Ms. Olga Kern in her solo recital at San Jose’s Le Petit Trianon Theatre, where she displayed an aggressive, percussive presence that did not delight my ear. She played the Rachmaninov Corelli Variations, which seems to have become a signature piece. In the course of twenty variations, Kern manages the huge octave leaps and digital acrobatics required in this first strict, then plastic approach to La Folia. The obligations to Schumann in the course of the odyssey are many, from the imitation of Schumann’s intermezzi to the applications of three-voice harmony. For the Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody, Kern plays the rather wild cadenza Rachmaninov wrote in the spirit of Godowsky’s colossal etudes on Chopin.
Kern opens with the familiar Bach E Major Partita transcription, which does benefit from some impressive highlighting of the inner voice parts. The piano sound of this recording is quite bright, and Kern’s hard-edged attacks give the pieces the Horowitz treatment dynamically, if without the same stellar poetry. The Kreisler transcriptions are happy gestures of homage to the Viennese sensibility, rife with portamentos and slides that transport us back and look ahead to Rachmaninov’s occasionally daring chromaticism. The sheer hustle of Flight of the Bumble Bee and the thick filigree around Schubert’s Wohin and Bizet’s Menuet are ample testimony to the mutual prowess of composer and performer. Likely, Kern fans have already decided to own everything she records. For my taste, she is too slick, too monochromatic in the use of the sustaining pedal. It’s your money.
The familiar set of 24 preludes and fugures that constitute the WTC were originally begun as an instructional set of pieces of Bach’s oldest son Wilhelm Friedman. He intended the set not only as a way lovers of the clavier could learn how to play in two and three voices, but also for teaching compositional theory at the same time. Moreover the set was designed to stand as a work of art which could be performed publically, as any of his other keyboard works. Quite a list of goals for one body of music!
While I’ve studied some of these works as do most piano students, and become thoroughly bored with them, I found Fellner’s refined touch and phrasing so compelling that it was like hearing them for the first time. And I’m usually not excited by modern piano performances of music more appropriate to the harpsichord. Fellner doesn’t try to immitate the earlier keyboard instrument (as did Glenn Gould in his Bach recordings), but he makes use of the greater interpretive power of the modern piano to give the music a more varied and constantly shifting sound than a harpsichord with its “terraced” dynamics and similar timbres could possibly offer. ECM’s approach to recording the grand piano with clarity and realism has long been a shining achivement, and it assists in putting a sort of sonic magnifying glass on these seemingly simple works – bringing out their subtleties and sophistication. Bravo to all concerned.
– John Sunier
BACH: The English Suites – Christophe Rousset, harpsichord – Ambroisie AMB 9942 (2 CDs):
The exact reason why this set of six suites is known as the English Suites is not known for certain. The French Suites are actually more influenced by the Italian style, while the six movements of each of the English Suites all have French titles and the music is highly ornamented in the French style. These suites were published during the composer’s lifetime, whereas neither the French Suites or the Cello Suites were. Young Rousset began playing the harpsichord at age 13 and has recorded the complete keyboard works of Couperin, Rameau, D’Anglebert and Forqueray.
Following an opening Prelude, all of the movements are based on dances: Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, Bouree and Gigue. Each one has its own particular personality, which Bach emphasizes while maintaining his usual contrapunctal complexities. Even the fugue sections move along with dance-like feeling rather than getting bogged down in strict and stodgy counterpoint. The magnificent-appearing and sounding instrument is an original Ruckers from 1632 and Rousset’s phrasing and touch is superbly refined – aiding the flow of the music much more effectively than the other two earlier discings of this set which I had in my collection. Ambroisie’s extremely clean but not too close sonics support the high quality of this presentation. The four-sectioned cardboard alternative fold-out packaging is also very classy. Highly recommended.
– John Sunier
JEAN FRANCAIX: Les malheurs de Sophie; Concertino for Piano and Orchestra; Les bosquets de Cythere – Philippe Cassard, p./Ulster orchestra/Thierry Fischer – Hyperion CDA67384:
Francaix wrote music of almost every type, and all at a high level of compositional skill, but nearly all of it shares one characteristic: It is light (in the best sense) and unpretentious without slipping into kitsch or corny. His sophisticated and witty French touch can be heard in all three of these works. The ballet The Misfortunes of Sophie is based on a popular French 19-century children’s book about a hellion of a three year old who among other things cuts up and cooks her mother’s pet fish, shaves off her eyebrows and overeats at afternoon tea. The Groves of Cythera is a suite of very French-sounding waltzes for orchestra bearing some resemblance to Ravel’s Vales nobles et sentimentales. The island of Cythera was considered the birthplace of Aphrodite in classical myth and shows up in several works by French composers.
The Piano Concertino was an early work and is one of the composer’s best-known. Its elegant design is brief (under nine minutes) and tight, with catchy melodies. It opens and closes with a bustling sort of perpetual motion sound. Cassard’s touch is just right for this sparkling music and the Irish orchestra seems to have an amazing affinity for the French style. Pas de malheurs anywhere in this production.
– John Sunier
Organ Fireworks – X = Works of TAKLE, BEHNKE, MULET, RUTTER, DURUFLE, FARRINGTON, MEYERBEER, LISTZ & others – Christopher Herrick at Létourneau organ of the Francisc Winspear Centre, Edmonton, Canada – Hyperion CDA67458:
This is the tenth in this label’s series of similar pipe organ show-off works featuring various organist on various instruments around the world. Previous ones have received excellent reviews and I found this one the most exciting – both musically and sonically – organ disc I have auditioned in a very long time. Nineteen tracks cover a wild spectrum of works, including several composers who will be new to listeners. The opening Blues-Toccata by Norwegian composer Takle gets things off to a very jazzy start. Mulet’s You Are Peter has long been my favorite show-off organ encore and it shakes the listening room here. British organ scholar Iain Farrington wrote Fiesta! – a six-movement suite in the style of the French organ school – from which Herrick selected two movements: Celebration and Stride Dance. Two longer works in the recital are John Rutter’s duet Variations on a Easter Theme, in which organist Jeremy Spurgeon shares the keyboard with Herrick, and Liszt”s Fantasia and Fugue on Ad nos, ad salutarem undam. Sonics, especially in the subwoofer region, are typically top flight.
– John Sunier
VIVALDI’s CELLO – Yo-Yo Ma/Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra/Ton Koopman – Sony Classical SK 90916:
For his third recording of Baroque music on Baroque instruments, Ma has again had his Stradivarius cello reconfigured according to the dictates of the period – gut strings, no endpin and a lower bridge, plus playing with a Baroque bow and a tuning setup in which the instruments of the orchestra are tuned relatively – only in relation to one another. All this demonstrates the extent to which the practice of so-called authentic or original instrument performance has permeated the concert music world. Beginning as a strictly academic excercise by musicologists and often producing rather boring performances with thin and wiry sound production, the movement at first appealed primarily to early music enthusiasts. But recently a more balanced view has occurred which retains most of the authentic period practices but also presents the music with a new gusto and enthusiasm that immediately captures the most jaundiced ear. One outstanding example of this is Il Gardino Armonico.
The 19 tracks of this new disc – which follows on his two previous Simply Baroque CDs – are primarily first recordings of both original Vivaldi concertos and other music transcribed for Ma with the chamber orchestra. Among these are six taken from the composer’s vocal works such as his well-known Gloria and his oratorio Juditha triumphans. Conductor Koopman did the arrangements and transcriptions. The opening Concerto in G Minor for Two Cellos is a gorgeous work worthy of repeated hearings; Ma is join by a second Baroque cellist here – Jonathan Manson. The Largo movement from Winter of the Four Seasons is also transcribed by Koopman for Ma’s cello. This project is quite a contrast to the cellist’s recent Obrigado Brazil studio and live recordings. Next up the genre-bending cellist is doing a collaboration with film composer Ennio Morricone.
– John Sunier