Classical CD Reviews

Classical CD Reviews, Part 1 of 2


Published on September 1, 2004

September 2004 – Part 1 of 2  [Part 2]

Bach & Vivaldi Schubert: Wintereise Franck Violin Sonata Ives Concord Sonata
Shostakovich Trios Arensky Trios Barenboim Plays Bach's WTC Daugaard conducts Beethoven
Eschenbach conducts Bruckner Shostakovich Violin Sonata classical piano

Concerti Italiani BACH, VIVALDI, MARCELLO: Concerti Italiani – Concerto Italiano, conducted by Rinaldo Alessandrini – Naïve Opus 111 OP 30301 (63 mins.) ****:

In the middle and at the end of an otherwise routine Baroque recital are two performances that, for very different reasons, every fancier of the genre will want to own. The apparent “concept” of the CD is the juxtaposition of Venetian concertos that Bach used as models. Oddly, however, the Bach concerto is a fabrication of its own, conductor Alessandrini’s arrangement of the well-known solo harpsichord work, the Italian Concerto, for strings. Patrick Barbier’s muddle-headed liner notes sheds little light on the circumstances surrounding what is called a “reconstruction,” or why it should be considered as such. But it makes for fascinating listening, the only other orchestration I know of the Italian Concerto being Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt’s more heavy-handed approach (included on a wonderful 2-disc set of Bach orchestral transcriptions from Biddulph). The performance by Concerto Italiano, unfortunately, does nothing to make it sound anything other than like a duck out of water. Maybe I’m missing something.

The other notable work on this release is a breathtaking reading of Vivaldi’s G minor flute concerto, “La Notte.” The interpretation is positively mind blowing, with a great long, erotic slow introduction and brilliant rhetorical touches and virtuosic flourishes as the piece goes on. Played straight, the piece is already a tour de force, but Alessandrini and his band exploit it to the max. The recordings, made in a Roman church, could use more ambiance but is clean and detailed. The sound on the Vivaldi flute concerto, however, made in a different Roman church, has that extra space and is drop dead gorgeous.

- Laurence Vittes

Bostridge sings Schubert SCHUBERT: Die Winterreise – Ian Bostridge, tenor. Leif Ove Andsnes, piano – EMI Classics 5 57790-2 (69 mins. ****):

After singing a few songs on Leif Ove Andsnes’s recordings of Schubert piano sonatas on two previous recordings for EMI (and after two Schubert recitals for the label with pianist Julius Drake), Ian Bostridge takes center stage with a magnificent performance of the composer’s emotional roller coaster of a song cycle. Totally free of affectation, his tenor voice full and rich without crooning, and with Andsnes picking his spots to make occasionally telling points with relatively simple lyrical highlighting or rhythmic emphasis, Bostridge give a reading that could go directly onto the label’s Great Recordings of the Century series.

Perhaps most impressively, Bostridge is willing and able to restrain himself at the beginning, letting the music and the poetry’s momentum accumulate with convincing power. He sudden outburst at the end of “Irrlicht” (“every sorrow too its grave”) does not need to be big to make its effect. He expands the five minutes plus of “Frühlingstraum” into a tone poem on its own And throughout, the beauty both of Bostridge’s voice and Andsnes’ piano has the seductive quality they need to lure the listener into what is, after all, a pretty depressing tale (whether suicide is their conclusion is not clear in this performance, but although Bostridge’s voice clearly begins to suffer auditory signs of hallucination by the end, his faltering sanity has an Ingmar Bergmann purity to it).

The warmly intimate recording, made in the superb venue of Potton Hall, in the small village of Cratfield in Suffolk, captures the piano as well as it does the voice and the balance is brilliant. The affectionate liner note by Bostridge makes for absorbing reading, and even manage to include in his musings heavyweights Paul Wittgenstein (who, we are told, whistled Winterreise) and Samuel Beckett (for whom it was a “crucial work”) without sounding pretentious.

- Laurence Vittes

Chang plays Franck Violin Sonata FRANCK: Violin Sonata; SAINT-SAENS: Violin Sonata No. 1; RAVEL: Violin Sonata – Sarah Chang, v./Lars Vogt, p – EMI 7243557679 ****for Ravel; **for the rest:

The highlight of this disc is the Chang-Vogt performance of the Ravel sonata. It is both expressive and classical, capturing the composer’s dual music personality. Chang’s wide vibrato and Vogt’s animated and precise pianism creates an impressionistically gorgeous palette of sounds that is sensuous and touching in the first movement. The violinist’s slightly wiry tone and the twang of her pizzicato in the ‘blues’ movement creates an ironic intensity that ends up being passionate and exciting. This is one of the finest performance of this marvelous work I’ve ever heard.

The remainder of the album is less impressive. In the more classical Franck sonata, Chang’s insecure sound is less appropriate and Vogt’s dramatic pianism carries the day, especially in the last movement. Yet Chang does express the tenderness in the third movement. Their last movement is probing, but the interpretation sounds a bit forced rather than intuitive and heartfelt.

The Saint Saens Sonata’s first movement is dramatically cogent, yet the close recording sounds congested in the louder passages. Things improve in the slow movement, as the partnership moved me for the first time. Both final movements are played with a panache and excitement that is brilliant, yet a bit heavy handed for French music. The sound of the two is close and in most cases clear.

- Robert Moon

Ives Concord Sonata IVES: Piano Sonata No. 2 “Concord, Mass.”; Songs – Susan Graham, mezzo soprano – Pierre-Laurent Aimard, piano – Emmanuel Pahud, flute – Tabea Zimmerman, viola – Warner Classics 2564-60297 ****:

This exquisitely sung collection of seventeen songs is a perfect introduction to the genius of Charles Ives. Each of these miniature vocal mood pieces captures the quintessential nature of one of America’s great composers. There is the fondly reminiscent (“The Things Our Father Loved”), the wildly exuberant (“Circus Band”), and the nostalgically romantic (“The Hausatonic at Stockbridge”). Others are sad (“The Indians,” “Like a Sick Eagle”), and ridiculous (“1,2,3”). I can’t think of a more interesting and life-affirming way to spend a half hour than to listen to these works. Susan Graham is a national treasure. Her voice flawlessly captures the varying essence of these gems.

Ives’ 48 minute Second Piano Sonata is a complex work that expresses the composer’s admiration of American Transcendentalism. Each of the four movements is named after the Transcendentalists from Concord, Massachusetts: Emerson, Hawthorne, the Alcotts and Thoreau. The first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is heard throughout the work as well as several American folk songs, including Columbia the Gem of the Ocean, which arrives like a breath of fresh air in the Hawthorne movement. Ives revised the work often during his lifetime and this version includes a brief but moving viola part in the first movement and a flute part in contemplative final movement – representing the mist over Walden’s Pond. Pierre-Laurent Aimard is simply brilliant, unraveling the complexities with clarity and revealing the quieter, affecting sections with ardor. The sound of this CD is close and clear. This is one of the acknowledged masterpieces of American piano literature, but it doesn’t reveal its greatness upon first hearing. Try one movement at a time. But don’t miss this outstanding CD.

- Robert Moon

Two Shostakovich Trios SHOSTAKOVICH: Piano Trios op.8 and 67; COPLAND: Piano Trio “Vitebsk” – Trio Wanderer – Harmonia Mundi HMC 901825 ****:

Shostakovich composed his first Piano Trio at age 17 as something he could use to accompany silent films as the staff pianist at the Bright Reel Cinema in Petrograd. It is characteristic of his compositional duality – chromatic dissonance versus diatonic romanticism. The latter emerges victorious as the work was dedicated to Tatiana Glivenko, a romantic interest of Shostakovich. There is a tenderness here that is a rarity in Shostakovich’s works. Trio Wanderer emphasize the contrasting moods in an performance that elevates this early work into more significance than it’s usually accorded.

The Shostakovich Op. 67 and Copland’s “Vitebsk are emotionally sad works, yet musicians have a choice in interpretation. To emphasize the beauty inherent in the sadness or the grim, hopeless aspect. These interpretations have taken the latter approach, and the result penetrates the darkest side of Russian soul. Yet there is a passion and intensity here that is riveting, to say the least. The Second Piano Trio was written in 1944 and dedicated to a very close friend, the music critic Ivan Sollertinsky who had died of a heart attack at a young age. The first movement uses Russian folk themes to express its sadness. The second is a grimly frenetic scherzo. The third is an achingly desolate largo and the finale a macabre dance that many have interpreted as depicting stories of the Germans forcing the Jews to dance on the edge of the graves they had dug as the Germans machine gunned them to death. Trio Wanderer’s interpretation really expresses the depressive depth of this masterpiece. It is a performance of unrelenting misery; brazen, in your face tragedy. It’s exciting, rhythmically riveting, gut- grabbing and very passionate.

Copland’s Vitebsk was written in 1929 after the composer attended a play (Ansky’s “The Dybbuk” by the Moscow Art Theater) and liked the Jewish folk theme that was used as background music. He called it a “dramatic character study on a Jewish Theme” and it mirrors the bleak mood of Shostakovich. Trio Wanderer exhumes all the despair in the score and does it with drama and spirit.

The sound of this disc is integrated and forward, matching the power of the performances. You can find other performances of the Shostakovich Op. 67 and the Copland that are easier on the ear but this disc is the ultimate in Russian angst, white hot intensity and brilliant execution.

- Robert Moon

Trios by Arensky ARENSKY: Piano Trio No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 32; Piano Trio No. 2 in F Minor, Op. 73 – Borodin Trio – Chandos CHAN 10184 X 69:40 ****:

Anton Arensky (1861-1906) remains the composer of at least one major orchestral work, the Variations on a Theme o Tchaikovsky, Op. 35a, and at least one major chamber work, the D Minor Trio of 1894. Few music lovers know the F Minor Trio of 1905. Record collectors recall a fine, though “thinly” sonorous version with Eileen Joyce in the piano part. The Borodin Trio recorded the D Minor Trio on 19 June 1986, ten years after their emigration from Russia. The Trio has lovely, waltz-like passages and a brisk, Mendelssohnian lightness that contrasts with the central Elegia between violin and cello con sordino. The piano part is quite lush, and Luba Edlina makes the most of it. The writing of the trio is both economical and terse, utilizing classical form with urgency and deftness, especially in the cello part, originally conceived as a tribute to the late Karl Davidov, who had directed the St. Petersburg Conservatory and founded the modern school of Russ! ian cello playing. Needless to say, Yuli Turovsky (whom I recently saw in concert at the helm of I Musicia de Montreal) plays with thoughtful integrity.

The F Minor Trio is a more expansive work, written one year prior to the composer’s death. The use of sonata form is no less evident, although Chopin’s spirit seems to dominate the piano solo in the second movement Romance. The alternate pizzicato and spiccato effects in the strings for the Scherzo make for catchy bravura. The last movement employs the composer’s Tchaikovsky-given legacy of theme and variations, six of them on a chordal original rife with harmonic shifts. The bravura elements are many, and the Borodin Trio, here recorded 2-3 August 1990, are in top flight ensemble.

–Gary Lemco

Barenboim plays WTC BACH: The Well Tempered Clavier, Book 1 – Daniel Barenboim, piano – Warner Classics 2564 61553-2 (2 CDs)****:

“I was reared on Bach.” Thus begins the pianist’s liner note to what is his most impressive recording since his complete set of the Beethoven symphonies. Exploring a Bach far distant from both the authentic recreations of the great harpsichordists and the legendary recordings of pianists such as Glenn Gould and Edwin Fischer, who were tied to such recreations in their dry though highly compelling and very different visions, Barenboim has raised the spirit of the composer with a uniquely reflective simplicity, grace and beauty that surely will come to be recognized as a landmark of Bach playing on the piano.

Although there is literally not one bar that is routine, Barenboim’s approach has certain characteristics that become evident, including the use of gentle, what used to be called feminine endings to both the preludes and fugues, and a tendency to blur more difficult fugal passages so that their effect is less the workings of a musical mechanism than the invocation of a remote emotional ambience. Throughout, in every bar, it is as if he had just discovered and been stunned by the magnificence of the composer’s inspiration.

The recording by Martin Sauer and Tobias Lehmann, made in the Teldec Studio in Berlin, is exquisitely lovely, capturing Barenboim’s wide-ranging use of tonal nuance within a magical aura of space that perfectly complements the interpretation. The liner notes, consisting of a historical-philosophical discussion by Barenboim that, invoking Mendelssohn, Schumann, Liszt and Stokowski, makes a strong case for an interpretation that comes down squarely for the concept of interpretive progress, augmented by a chatty, absorbing and highly informative introduction to the music by Jeremy Siepmann, confirm that this production has been thought out carefully from the start. There is nothing to do besides listen to and marvel at the music making, and to wait eagerly for Book Two.

- Laurence Vittes

Dausgaard conducts Bee 6th BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 6, Leonore Overtures 1-3 – Swedish Chamber Orchestra Örebro, conducted by Thomas Dausgaard – Simax Classics PSC 1184 (74 mins.):

The Danish conductor Thomas Dausgaard continues his brilliant voyage through Beethoven’s orchestra music with a sixth installment comprising the “Pastoral” symphony and the three Leonore overtures. In each, Dausgaard sets a breathless pace and then proceeds to knock aside all conventional notions of the true nature of the composer’s intentions. This is as true of the relatively obscure first Leonore overture, which proves to be hardly a poor cousin of its larger, more famous siblings, as it is of the symphony, which may not be quite as fast and furious as Carlos Kleiber’s celebrated 1983 live performance with the Bayerisches Staatsorchester, recently released to great acclaim on Orfeo (along with four minutes of applause!), but in the end it is more dramatically convincing.

The effect can be disconcerting at first, as when Dausgaard and his mighty mouse chamber orchestra seem to break into a dog trot at around five minutes of the opening movement of the symphony, or when you realize that he just will not make the customary rhetorical obeisances, preferring to see much larger interpretive arches. But once you realize how far into the interior of Beethoven’s mind Dausgaard is penetrating, and what incredible spatial dimensions his explorations are revealing, you may not be content until you have heard the previous five volumes as well.

A large part of the success of this release must go to the recording team led by Andrew Keener. Recorded in the Orchestra’s concert hall in Örebro, it is spectacularly clean and detailed, with splendid golden timbres and powerful bass. Despite Beethovenian glories of the past, from titans like Furtwängler and Karajan, this points irresistibly to a Beethoven of the future.

- Laurence Vittes

Bruckner 4th BRUCKNER: Symphony No. 4, “Romantic” – Orchestre de Paris, Christoph Eschenbach – Ondine 1030-2 (74 mins.)****:

An extraordinary new live performance of the Bruckner Fourth from an initially unlikely source, the Philadelphia Orchestra’s refined new conductor and one of the leading French bands. It turns out, however, that the combination makes for an indolent, voluptuous Bruckner in the first movement, and much of beauty in the rest, that exceeds all possible expectations and, with the aid of a startling recording, makes this an essential if eccentric performance.

The competition is glorious and tough, whether it be Esa-Pekka Salonen’s deconstructionist account with the Los Angeles Philharmonic or Karl Böhm’s Indian summer performance for Decca in 1973 with the Vienna Philharmonic, but Eschenbach takes his idiosyncratic path through Bruckner’s vast universe with such a sense of spaced out abandon that, if you get onto his wave length, you will be in for an unforgettable experience.

The first movement is the most dramatic case in point. At times painfully slow, by the time the celebrated viola counterpoint midway through the movement has led to the familiar shafts of celestial light, Eschenbach has crated an otherworldly sense that conjures up visions of infinity. The slow movement gets into a similar space after about three minutes, but the last two movements, the Scherzo and the Finale, are quick to raise the pulse, with tremendous playing from the brass and great thumping timpani.

The sound is a large part of this CD’s success. Recording at the Théâtre Mogador, where the Orchestre de Paris plays its concerts (and where in 1920 Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes performed classics like Petrouchka and L’après-midi d’un faune), engineer Mitsou Carré has provided a very large soundstage of striking height and depth (particularly noticeable in an analytical, Naim-type system). This has resulted in some blurring of detail but the tradeoff is well worth it because the size of the recording exactly matches the size of Eschenbach’s interpretive approach. Strongly recommended unless you are determined on conventional Bruckner.

- Laurence Vittes

Shostakovich V. Sonata SHOSTAKOVICH: Violin Sonata, 24 Preludes for Violin and Piano. Grigory Kalinovsky, violin; Tatiana Goncharova, piano. Centaur CRC 2636 ****.

What? Shostakovich never wrote 24 Preludes for Violin and Piano. Like the two chamber symphonies (Opus 110a and Opus 118a), which are based on String Quartets 8 and 4 respectively, these preludes are transcriptions of an earlier work. The 24 Preludes (1932-33) is a charming tapestry of introspective and dance-like piano pieces, from 42 seconds to two and a half minutes in length. They are so charming that some of them have been transcribed for orchestra (Leopold Stokowski), clarinet and orchestra, and violin and piano. In the mid-1930s, the violinist Dmitri Tziganov transcribed 19 of the Preludes. For this recording, violinist Kalinovsky commissioned composer Lera Auerbach to transcribe the remaining five (4, 7, 9, 14, and 23). That makes this the world premier of the complete violin piano transcriptions. It works. In fact, in many ways they are more engaging than the original and certainly more unsettling at times. Listen to Auerbach’s transcription of #23 and compare it to the original piano work. The addition of the violin paints a complex and compellingly eerie mood. Also on this disc is an edgy performance of Shostakovich’s only violin sonata. It leads us down arched halls of melodies and cramped antechambers of 12-tone rows. Kalinovsky makes the violin glissandos spit and fume and the piano accompaniment is wondrously grotesque, particularly in the Allegretto. This worthy disk should keep you amused for hours.

Peter Bates




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