Classical CD Reviews
Classical CD Reviews, Part 1 of 3
Published on June 1, 2004
ELGAR: Cello Concerto in E Minor, Op. 85; Falstaff–Symphonic Study in C Minor, Op. 68; Romance for Bassoon and Orchestra, Op. 62; Smoking Cantata (1919) – Andrew Shorem baritone; Graham Salvage, bassoon; Heinrich Schiff, cello/Mark Elder conducts Halle Orchestra – CD Hill 7505 69:42:
Edward Elgar contemplated his Falstaff character-study for over ten years, 1901-1913, taking his cue from Shakespeare’s eponymous, mischievous, portly knight whose friendship with Prince Hal (from Henry IV, Part I) often begets minor villainies and forces the new King Henry IV to renounce his association with Falstaff. The sumptuous character of Falstaff, whose “theme” is “the whole of human life,” according to Elgar, no less fascinated Orson Welles, whose Chimes at midnight captures the Rabelaisian girth and lust for life of the often, darkly brave and ferocious knight.
I find the score for Falstaff a strange mix of Richard Strauss elements, suggestive of Ein Heldenleben and the Domestic Symphony, with neither the colossal breadth of the former nor the homely melody of the latter. In four sections and ten movements of unequal length, the Falstaff study of Elgar strives for some nostalgic gestures, but it fails to command even the same tension and exaltation he achieves more often in the Enigma Variations. The Romance for Bassoon (1910) is a companion-piece to the Violin Concerto, sharing at least one heartfelt crescendo that is worth the price of admission. The so-called Smoking Cantata is a jape at Elgar’s friend, German businessman Edward Speyer, who had admonished Elgar and Maurice Kufferath notto smoke on the stairwell of the Monnaie Theatre in Brussels. Bemused by the incident, Elgar decided to compose a 60-second Wagnerian aria on the subject, worthy of a snicker from Groucho Marx.
The real excitement on this disc comes from Heinrich Schiff’s blazing rendition of the Cello Concerto, its wartime sentiments ringing with vigor and authority, quite reminiscent of the Navarra/Barbirolli collaboration on Testament and equally rapturous. Mark Edler has taken up the mantle of Barbirolli with striking colors and lavish praise from critics. The sound of this CD is quite strong, and it is also an “Enhanced” disc which will provide special features when loaded in your PC.
HANDEL: Water Music & TELEMANN: Wassermusik – Zefiro conducted by Alfredo Bernardini – Ambroisie AMB 9946 (75 mins.):
According to Greek mythology, Zephyr (Zefiro in Italian) was the tender and kind god of the Western Winds. In 1989 oboists Alfredo Bernardini and Paolo Grazzi and bassoonist Alberto Grazzi founded Zefiro to be a versatile musical ensemble in which wind instruments are in the foreground. The versatility was achieved (Zefiro functions as chamber ensemble, wind group and baroque orchestra), and the quality has turned out to be world-class, big time!Recorded live during a concert at St. John’s Smith Square in London, the 24 musicians of Zefiro give a brilliant performance of Handel’s oft-recorded Water Music that could well become the touchstone for audiophiles seeking to check out their system or investigating new components. There’s no shortage of such traditional original instrument delights as added curlicues and roulades and crackling French horns, but the real news is the unflagging energy of the performance, and the stylish, exhilarating and seductive virtuosity with which Zefiro set about their work. Inserting Telemann’s own water music suite, the Hamburger Ebb’ und Flut Overture from 1723 makes sense both historically (Handel’s suites were probably compiled in 1717 and 1736) and musically, although Telemann’s wonderfully careening palette, which runs the gamut from Baroque eroticism to what sounds like peasant clog dances, smacks as much of the decadence of a Rameau as it does of the more sober Handel.The gorgeous, rich and weighty (but not heavy) recording by Simon Fox-Gál sets Zefiro out in a large, airy space whether it’s ferocious punch or delicious delicacy that’s required. Alfredo Bernardini’s liner notes go about their work with serious authority, even divulging the little-known fact that Handel and Telemann shared, appropriately enough, an interest not only in water music but in gardening.
- Laurence Vittes
HINDEMITH: Clarinet Chamber Music – John Bruce Yeh, Clarinet / Easley Blackwood, Piano / Amelia Piano Trio and friends – Cedille Records CDR 90000 072:
Paul Hindemith’s career began with mostly atonal works, more akin to Serialism than anything else. In the mid 1920’s, he abruptly abandoned his atonal pursuits and began to compose in a more tonal frame of work; these clarinet-based chamber pieces offer some of the first fruits of his newly adopted style of composition. John Bruce Yeh plays superbly throughout – especially noteworthy is the Sonata for Clarinet and Piano, in which he plays a less common Oehler clarinet that has a much more woody tone – not to mention the splendid accompaniment from composer Easley Blackwood.
Cedille has given us another excellent recording here – I’d strongly suggest checking out their catalog – nothing I’ve ever heard from them has been anything short of stunning. Very highly recommended, not only to lovers of clarinet music, but to lovers of well-recorded chamber music in general.
BEETHOVEN: Piano Music: Sonatas Pathétique & Les Adieux. Variations Op. 34 & Wo80 – Leon McCawley – Resonance RSN 3000 (65 mins.):
Originally released in 2001 on the Black Box label, and now reissued on budget-priced Resonance, this superb Beethoven collection leads off enterprisingly with the composer’s underrated C Minor Variations in which the young Leon McCawley gives a performance of exceptional beauty and insight. The Variations start off unassumingly enough (nothing like the spectacular opening chord of Cédric Tiberghien’s recent recording for Harmonia Mundi, one of the great single piano chord recordings in recent memory), but then proceeds through ten minutes of irresistible charm and poetry. The Variations often sound unnecessarily heavy, or merely a throwaway, so to hear them played with such charisma significantly expands an understanding of what Beethoven was about. The same is true of McCawley’s performance of the little Andante Favori, as flirtatious as Beethoven ever dared to be.
McCawley’s playing of the two sonatas is not quite as startlingly good, but still outstanding. Listen to the way he handles the sudden flourishes in the last movement of Op. 81a (Les Adieux) and you will hear something special.
In his brief liner notes, the pianist notes that “It has been a joy to record these works, particularly in this day and age when it is becoming increasingly difficult for artists to record well-known repertoire.” The truth is that there is always room for exceptional music making like this. And, as recorded at St George’s Brandon Hill in Bristol by Colin Rae with exceptional but unobtrusive honesty, it becomes obvious that nothing about the beauty of McCawley’s piano sound is manufactured.
- Laurence Vittes
SCHUBERT: Sonata No. 21 in B-flat Major, Op. Posth., D. 960/SCHUBERT-LISZT: 4 Lieder; LISZT: Mephisto Waltz No. 1 – Evgeni Kissin, piano -
RCA 82876-58420-2 72:21:
Admirers of Russian virtuoso Evgeni Kissin (b. 1971) will doubtless find a maturity and fulfillment of his early promise in his present recording of Schubert’s most exalted sonata, the 1828 B-flat Major, composed as one of three such masterpieces in the final year of his life. The piece has elicited varying response from the great pianists since Schnabel and Erdmann rediscovered Schubert’s late sonatas for the modern era. Clara Haskil, of course, comes to mind for poignant lyricism and inner, consistent pulsation. Fellow-Russian Sviatoslav Richter took a cooler though Herculean approach to the epic breadth of the work. Rudolf Serkin gave the piece architecture, while Rubinstein seems to have withdrawn any sense of “personality” so that the work could reveal itself.
Some will find Kissin’s rendition of the B-flat overripe and affected, while others will embrace his reading as lyric and even lilting. Kissin plays the repeats in the opening Molto moderato, giving the poetry of the work, with its intrusive and disturbing trill, a decided feeling of nostalgia and defensiveness against loss. The ensuing Andante sostenuto is no less broad, played very slowly, so that its quotations from motifs of the opening movement’s first subject are emphasized in their wistful character. Finally, the last two movements open outward, a more extroverted vision, with a bittersweet sense of forced gaiety. The hyphenated Schubert-Liszt arrangements remind me less of Haskil than of another fine Liszt acolyte, Jorge Bolet, with the fluid “Das Wandern” and “Wohin” both propelled and swaggering in their Whitmanesque sentiments for the open road. A more troubled sensibility erupts in “Aufenthalt,” a chromatic, declamatory longing for! respite in a troubled, turgid universe. The ever-lovely “Staendchen” enjoys a high relief in the treble register while the bass harmonies resound with a profound sense of serenity.
Liszt without hyphens appears in his most characteristic, demonic guise. The approach here is pure Horowitz: lightning attacks, blistering filigree, rapid passages in block chords, and swift shifts of registration. The relatively waltz-like passages, reflecting Faust’s hesitancy to lure the innkeeper’s daughter to seduction, are themselves seductive, highlighting the intricate irony of the piece. When the final pages rush to lust after the song of the nightingale, we have been swept along by sea of sound, a real firebrand performance.
“Through the Years” = BACH: Sinfonia No. 2 in C Minor, BWV 788; Sarabande from French Suite No. 5 in G, BWV 816/RAMEAU: La rappel des oiseaux; Elegy (arr. Godowsky)/SCARLATTI: Sonata in C Minor, L. 352/BEETHOVEN: Andante favori/SCHUMANN: Intermezzo in D minor, Op. 4, No. 5/CHOPIN-LISZT: Moja pieszczotka, Op. 74, No. 12/LISZT: Petrarch Sonettto No. 104/GRIEG: From Early Years, Op. 65, No. 1/DEBUSSY: Homage a Rameau/MUFFAT: Fugue in G Minor (arr. Bartok)/ALBENIZ: Tango (arr. Godowsky)/BORODIN: In a Monastery/TCHAIKOVSKY: Dialogue, Op. 72, No. 8/SCRIABIN: Two Poems, Op. 32/SHCHEDRIN: Humoresque
Dmitry Paperno, piano – Cedille CDR 90000 074 74:47:
Recorded 2001, these pieces played by Dmitry Paperno (b. 1929) have a valedictory character, as if Cedille were arranging a conscious swan-song for this fine artist, whose Memoirs of a Moscow Pianist made a fascinating memoir of the late Soviet period of Russian music-making. Most of Paperno’s Cedille albums project him as a miniaturist, except for the opening movement of Schubert’s G Major Fantasy-Sonata and the one movement from Chopin’s F Minor Concerto. This disc makes us wish Paperno would commit to disc the entire set of Schumann’s Op. 4 Intermezzi, for which the Russians (like Bashkirov) seem to have especial sympathy. Paperno’s sense of polyphony comes through in articulate, clear lines, as it does in the pieces by Bach, Rameau, Albeniz, and Muffat (by way of Bartok). Paperno’s graceful and graduated nuances come through in the Liszt Sonetto, and again in the lovely Poems, Op. 32 by Scriabin, which beguile with shifts within a pianissimo dynamic. The sensitivity to harmonic modulation is evident in Paperno’s Grieg lyric piece, the Liszt treatment of Chopin’s last of the Polish songs, Debussy’s second Image in honor of Rameau. The longest piece is Beethoven’s Andante favori, intended for the Waldstein Sonata, a work whose sincerity and directness of sentiment seem to encapsule all of Paperno’s virtues as an artist who remains underrated and underrepresented in the major works which would more expansively demonstrate his immense, poetic gifts. Perhaps, like the late Sviatoslav Richter, Paperno consciously avoids any categorization as an “integralist.”
VIVALDI: Concerto ripieno in C Major, RV 114; Cantate: “Cessate, omai cessate,” RV 684; Sonata a quatro “Al Santo Seolcro,” RV 130; Introduzione al miserere “Filiae Maestre Jerusalem,” RV 638; Stabat Mater, RV 621 -
Andreas Scholl, countertenor/Ensemble 415/Chiana Banchini, director – Harmonia Mundi HMC 801571 52:04:
Here is a darker, less secular side of Antonio Vivaldi in a series of recordings made in 1995 in splendid sound, so I don’t know if they qualify as “historic reissues.” I tend to associate the more religious, even arcane, Vivaldi to the musical explorations of Antonio Negri. Ensemble 415 sports seven violins and two violas, two celli, contrabass, a lute, a bassoon, and harpsichord or organ, depending on whether we hear a salon or a church sonata. They pack a pungent, crisp sound, as evidenced in the chromatic, string accompaniments to the emotional cantata, “Cease, cease, cruel memories” with an ardent Andreas Stoll, a piece that clearly proves a template for Mozart’s dramatic arias. The opening all-string concerto is Vivaldi’s answer to Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3. Vivaldi’s RV 130 is a poignant, highly affective treatment of the image of the Easter Vigil, with the Maries’ anointing the slain body of Christ at his sepulchre. The agonized dissonance! s likely owe much to Gesualdo as anyone else. The extended cantata on “Afflicted Daughters of Jerusalem” has its premise in the dying Christ whose witnesses, animate and inanimate, weep with universal mourning. The middle movement Largo is central in all senses, and its breadth captures the “silenced zephyrs” that can no longer bring fruit to a barren world. The nine-movement Stabat Mater (c. 1727) for the Feast of the Seven Sorrows of the Virgin enjoys some strange patterns of repetition and rhythmic sequences, but its appeal is concise and moving. I find all these pieces stylistic and dynamically, texturally fascinating. Audiophiles should be delighted both in ear and mind by the power of some extraordinary compositions, expertly rendered.
SKROWACZEWSKI: Concerto Nicolo for Piano Left Hand and Orchestra. Concerto for Orchestra. Gary Graffman, piano. Minnesota Orchestra conducted by Stanislaw Skrowaczewski – Reference Recordings (HDCD) RR103CD:
From 1969-71 as Assistant Manager of the Minnesota Orchestra I drove Stanislaw Skrowaczewski to concerts he conducted in Rochester, Minnesota. He was an intelligent, quiet and thoughtful person. The music on this disc reflects those characteristics and more.
The Concerto for Orchestra, nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1999, is a revised version of the composer’s original composition of 1986, with a reduction in orchestration twelve years after the premiere. When the title Concerto for Orchestra comes to mind, Bartok’s masterpiece crashes into the memory and the recent riveting and exciting Concerto by Jennifer Higdon is raising eyebrows (or is it earlobes?). Skrowaczewski’s Concerto is fabric of a much different cloth: probing, serious, and contemplative. The first movement (Adagio, Mysterioso) lays out a stealthy drama that unfolds mysteriously, anxiously sporadic, yet subtedly energizing, utilizing a wide range of percussive instruments (including a boobam (a set of single note sound boxes related to chime bars) and pitched Thai gongs). The second movement Adagio is a tribute to Anton Bruckner, of whom Skrowaczewski is a superb interpreter. Titled“Anton Bruckner’s Himmelfahrt” – Bruckner’s Heavenly Journey – it pays homage to Bruckner by encompassing passages that are melodic, ominous, mysterious, and spiritually exalted.
Like Paul Wittgenstein, the famous pianist who commissioned Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand after he lost his right arm during World War I, Gary Graffman has commissioned concertos for the left hand from Ned Rorem, William Balcom, Jennifer Higdon and others in the early 1980’s. Dr. Herbert Axelrod, the well known violin collector, commissioned this work for Graffman from Skrowaczewski. Using Paganini’s 24th caprice for violin solo, the composer has crafted a four movement 27 minute work that transforms the caprice’s motif into an essay that brilliantly integrates piano and instrumental forces (especially percussion) into a tapestry of diverse conversations.
Both works on this disc reveal a composer of musical integrity, intellectual substance and warmth. Reference provides it’s usual authentic sonic portrait and the Minnesota Orchestra performs superbly for its Conductor Laureate. Recommended as a disc for the inquisitive listener.
– Robert Moon
JOHN ADAMS: ROAD MOVIES = Road Movies (1995); Hallelujah Junction (1996); China Gates (1977); American Berserk (2001); Phrygian Gates (1977). Leila Josefowicz, violin, John Novacek, piano (in Road Movies). Nicolas Hodges, piano (in Hallelujah Junction, China Gates and American Berserk). Rolf Hind, piano in Hallelujah Junction and Phrygian Gates. Nonesuch 79699-2:
This collection of John Adam’s chamber works spans a 25 year period and demonstrates how this great American composer can integrate different stylistic and cultural influences into works that are serious, light hearted and satisfying. “Road Movies is travel music, music that is comfortably settled in a pulse groove and passes through harmonic and textural regions as one would pass through a landscape on a car trip,” writes the composer. It’s a 15 minute work for violin and piano with three movements that reflect its emotional landscape: Relaxed Groove, Meditative and 40% Swing. I recently heard it in a concert where it was programmed among more traditional classical works. It served the same function as a sorbet between courses of a meal: it refreshes the sonic palate with bright flavors. Hallelujah Junction is named after a small truck stop the composer passes by on his way to his cabin in the High Sierras of California.
Stopping here provides the listener with two pianos conversing rapidly, serenely, and finally racing to be the first to out boogie each other. American Berserk is an 8 minute work written for pianist Garrick Ohlsson. The title aptly describes the work’s affect on a listener. Its liberal use of “sudden twists and curves and punctured with unexpected stabs of syncopation and unpredictable, bipolar shifts of mood and tempos,” would make a bracing encore for some adventurous pianist. China Gates and Phrygian Gates are seminal Adams, deriving from a time when he lived in the Sunset district of San Francisco and became fascinated with how he could replicate in music the “infinitely modulated variety of wave motion on the sea surface.” Those who are fascinated (and perhaps hypnotized) by the creative repetitions and variations of minimalism will find these works essential listening. There are constantly changing energy levels to this work that create a kinetic force that rivets the body and mind, especially in Rolf Hind’s performance. Clear, close sound completes this introduction to Adam’s chamber compositions. [
See the review of the John Adams Portrait and Concerto in DVD-V Section this issue.]
– Robert Moon
21st Century Preludes and Fugues from two different contemporary composer/pianists…
LARRY BELL: Reminiscences and Reflections: 12 Preludes and Fugues – Jonathan Bass, piano – North/South Recordings N/S R 1032:
Bell is a noted composer based at the Boston Conservatory and New England Conservatory, who has had his works performed around the world and himself performed regularly as a pianist. His Preludes and Fugues were written over a five-year period and served as a sort of sketchbook for other pieces he was writing on commission. The fugues were normally composed first and the preludes written to reflect the harmonic content of the fugue. Many of the pieces contain cross references to one another. Bell likes to use tonal and serial techniques simultaneously, and in these works gravitate to a central tonal triad, but each pair is based on harmony taken from different six-note pitch sets. His goal was to employ all possible transpositions of these hexachords. Several of the pieces show jazzy syncopations. The Prelude sections all have subtitles, such as: Glissando Study, Chase, Last Dance, etc. And of course it is to be understood that Bach’s great 48 of the WTC were part of the inspiration for this collection.
HENRY MARTIN: Preludes & Fugues, Part Two – Henry Martin, piano – Bridge 9140:
I reviewed Part One of this set some time ago. The second disc continues and concludes the set of 24 preludes and fugues inspired by Bach’s WTC. There are pieces in each major and minor key, just as with Bach. What makes these pieces different from other similar efforts from Chopin, Debussy, Scriabin and Rachmaninoff is their frequent use of jazz and other popular idioms. In fact No. 13 which begins this part is subtitled “A Slow Drag,” Scott Joplin style. Some of the fugues have as many as four or five different voices. The texture/structure of the pieces seems to hark back to Bach’s era, but the choice of pitches – though tonal – is definitely 20th century. Fugue 24 in B Minor is at seven minutes by far the longest of the set, and it even quotes the famous B-A-C-H theme employed by many composers in the past. Fascinating and exhuberant music well worth getting to know.
- John Sunier