Classical CD Reviews

Classical CD Reviews, Part 2 of 2


Published on September 1, 2004

September 2004 Pt. 2 of 2   [Pt. 1]

New Liszt works Monteverdi's Orfeo Charles Ives works Berg & Britten V. Concertos
Brahms V. Sonatas Transmigration of Souls Geraldine Walther, viola Gilbert Kalish, piano

Villancicos VILLANCICOS Y DANZAS CRIOLLAS DEL LA IBERIA ANTIGUA EL NUEVO MUNDO 1550-1750: La Capella Reial de Catalunya, Hespèrion XXI, Jordi Savall – Alia Vox AV 9834 (77 mins.) ****:

Jordi Savall and his intrepid band have traversed this delicious New World repertoire before, but about half of the music on this new recording is new to their discography. There even seem to be some entirely unrecorded works here, by the Mexicans Juan Garcia de Zéspedes and Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla, the active in Peru Tomas y Torrejon y Velasco, and the Spaniards Melchior Torres and Mateo Flecha.

But whether it is new or newly recorded, there is always much to be gained from the musicians’ fresh sense of improvisation, their sense of joy and excitement. And, also as always, the virtuosity with which Savall fastens on to a theme is riveting, even if the singers (including the usually resplendent Montserrat Figueras) are not always at their ultimate best.

The recording is beautifully detailed and transparent, the presentation is a feast for the eyes as well as for the brain. If you love life enhancing rhythms, a rich tapestry of instrumental color and exotic, sometimes erotic percussion, all delivered in stunning audiophile sound, this is a release for you.

- Laurence Vittes

newly-found Liszt piano pieces LISZT: New Discoveries 2 = Preludes et Harmonies poetiques et religieuses; Concerto sans orchestre; Album-Leaf: Magyar in B-flat Minor; Hungarian March in B-flat Minor; Pensees ‘Nocturne”; Four Album-Leaves; O lieb, so lang du lieben kannst! – Leslie Howard, piano – Hyperion CDA67455 79:34 (Distrib. Harmonia Mundi) ****:

Here are series of recently unearthed pieces by Liszt, taken from the so-called “Tasso” Sketchbook (1845-1847) investigated by Rena Charnin-Mueller for her doctoral thesis. It seems that after having met the Princess Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein, liszt undertook a series of meditative pieces that combine his sense of yearning with his adept imitations of Latin hymnody. The C Minor piece entitled Langueur seems like it would warrant attention from any committed Lisztian, and Arrau should have recorded it long ago. The Concerto is the A Major Concerto solo part some twenty-five years earlier than its final, revised version. We hear variants of the later Liebestraum No. 3, particularly in the A Major song “O lieb, so lang du lieben kannst!”

The various Album-Leaves reveal the experimenter in Liszt, trying out nontraditional harmony that presages Debussy. Many of the Poetic and Religious Harmonies are water-pieces that will point to Ravel and Liszt! ‘s own etudes for the Villa d’Este in the future. The Elegie anticipates Liszt’s First Ballade and is rife with sudden key changes. Listeners will likely think they are hearing minor pieces by Schumann throughout this survey, and Schumann may well have been a conscious influence in Liszt’s early style. The two Hungarian (or Magyar) marches owe something to Moscheles, and they are less authentic in folk style than Bartok and Kodaly would reveal in their really modal dissonances, but Liszt’s heart is in the right place. Pianist Howard in his own liner notes calls the Nocturne “a little gem,” and he is on the money. Howard himself plays with virtuoso panache and sensibility, a clear acolyte in the manner of Bolet and Lewenthal. Very warm piano sound from Hyperion.

–Gary Lemco

Monteverdi's Orfeo MONTEVERDI: L’Orfeo; Natalie Dessay, La Musica/ Ian Bostridge, Orfeo/ Patrizia Ciofi. Euridice/ Alice Coote, Messaggeria/ Sonia Prina, Speranza/ Mario Luperi, Caronte/ Veronica Gens, Prosperina/ Lorenzo Regazzo, Plutone/ Christopher Maltman, Apollo/ Carolyn Sampson, Ninfa/ Paul Agnew, Eco. Le Concert d’Astree, European Voices / Emmanuelle Haim. Virgin Veritas, 2 CDs, 7243 5 45642 22 ****:

Orfeo,which premiered in Mantua Feb.24,1607, has been described as Italy’s first great opera. It celebrates the all-encompassing power of music which can ‘soothe all troubled hearts, and now with noble anger,now with love, inflame the coldest minds.’

Monteverdi draws upon the music of the Renaissance while looking forward to the Baroque.It is his seamless amalgam of the old and new which plays a pivotal role in the creation of this masterpiece. The juxtaposition of moments of great rejoicing upon the imminent catastrophe of Euridice’s death/Orfeo’s loss creates drama of the highest order. Monteverdi’s expression of the work’s progress is executed by scrupulous attention to large and small detail . Ornamentation here highlights rather than distracts from the dramatic progress of the work.

Emmanuelle Haim leads the Concert d’Astree and corps of excellent soloists in another finely polished, beautifully wrought recording. Absolute commitment to the music is evident throughout. The performance has a freshness and excitement which portends a sense of discovery . Orfeo is beautifully sung, played and recorded. Ian Bostridge repeats his triumph of Dido and Aeneas, his Orfeo is imbued with an heroic sense of all too brief victory followed by abject loss. He is supported by a stellar cast, with particular kudos to Patrizia Ciofi who creates a poignant Euridice.

The “early music” orchestral contribution by Concert d’Astree is elegantly refined and paced. Imaging is well focused with surrounding deep sound stage. The recording venue is Paroisse Notre Dame du Liban, Paris. The engineering is first rate. The liner notes contain an excellent introduction by Tim Carter, Professor of Music at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, N.C.,. Very highly recommended.

- Ronald Legum

Ives: Emerson Concerto IVES: Emerson Concerto; Symphony No. 1; Alan Feinberg, piano/ National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland/ James Sinclair. Naxos 8.559175 ***:

An excellent example of this composer’s evolution from a Dvorak “wannabe” to the most uniquely individual voice of 20th century American music!

The Symphony No.1 is very much like Dvorak’s “Bells of Zlonice”.It is tuneful, expertly crafted and orchestrated, and thoroughly predictable This symphony was Ives’ “final exam” upon graduating Yale. It was in a style most acceptable to Horatio Parker,traditional Chairman of the Yale Music Department.. The 1st symphony is in four movements and bears little witness to being a product of the iconoclast that Ives was to become. Rambling,sentimental, derivative and well crafted are applicable to Ives’ First Symphony. Distinctive, is the quality best suited to the music of Ives most familiar to the music lover. The 3rd and 4th symphonies, Three Places in New England, The Unanswered Question,the Songs are uniquely Ivesian, uniquely American. The First Symphony may be thought of as Ives’ farewell to the established musical institution which Dr. Parker represented.

The Emerson Concerto, or as Ives called it, Emerson Overture for Piano and Orchestra , represents a way station en route to the final destination of Ives’ composing journey. It exists as a developed draft. This performing version has been completed by the Ives scholar David G. Porter. The draft was completed by Ives in 1911, put aside, and taken up again later to become incorporated into the ideas of the magnificent Concord Sonata.

This concerto is quintessential Ives. He muses in full dynamic palette over the opening notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and other Ivesian stalwarts. There are the grand Ives dissonances, the themes which are only fragments. Ives never allows the indulgence of a developed theme arching in sentimentality as permeated the First Symphony. The Emerson Concerto is a distillation of ideas, of leitmotivs which the music lover, who makes the effort to come to grips with Ives’ methods will be rewarded many fold as increasing familiarity with his music is gained.

The Emerson Concerto is idiomatically performed by the American pianist, Alan Feinberg and the fine, versatile, National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland expertly led by James Sinclair. This Naxos CD is well engineered. It is a fascinating snapshot of one of America’s great and most individual composers

- Ronald Legum

Berg & Britten concertos BERG: Violin Concerto; BRITTEN: Violin Concerto, op.15 – Daniel Hope, violin/ BBC Symphony Orchestra/ Paul Watkins. – Warner Classic 2564-60291-2 ****:

The Berg violin concerto, written in 1935 and dedicated “to the memory of an angel”, the eighteen year old Manon Gropius, daughter of Alma Mahler and the architect, Walter Gropius, is among the most revered of 20th century violin concertos. It has received magnificent recordings by Itzhak Perlman, Anne Sophie Mutter and Josef Suk. This new recording by the young British violinist, Daniel Hope, is a worthy new interpretation. It is quite a restrained and meditative performance of this contemplative concerto, having the feel of chamber music in the clarity of dialogue between the soloist and orchestra. I find this recording quite successful in its elegant presentation of the Berg concerto as a structured, cohesive work. Daniel Hope, perhaps deliberatively, projects a restrained, well controlled, ruminative violin tone which blends very well with the responsive BBC Symphony led by Paul Watkins. The performance is close miked with good preservation of detail by the Warner engineers.

The violin concerto by Benjamin Britten is a neglected 20th century work. Composed between 1938-39 for the Spanish violinist, Antonio Brosa, it is melodic and energetic and displays the panache found in many of this composer’s instrumental compositions. There is also an ominous, disquieting aspect to this concerto, perhaps representing Republican Spain on the brink of civil war as well as the greater conflict soon to play out in Europe. Daniel Hope plays the piece with obvious affection, dash and dynamic range, establishing a fine balance with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Paul Watkins.

This is a most worthy disc containing two important, well performed and recorded 20th century violin concertos.

- Ronald Legum

Brahms violin sonatas BRAHMS: Violin Sonatas: No. 1 in G Major, Op. 78; No. 2 in A Major, Op. 100; No. 3 in D Minor, Op. 108 – Christian Tetzlaff, violin/Lars Vogt, piano – EMI 7243 5 57525 2 71:19 ****:

Recorded between September 3-5, 2002 at the fifth anniversary of the Heimbach Chamber Music Festival, these live and lively readings of the Brahms sonatas has already been issued in the larger set of complete Brahms Duo Sonatas (5 57523 2) from EMI. Other installments from the Festival include works by Mozart, Haydn, Berg, Schumann, Shostakovich, and Dvorak, with assistance from Sabine Meyer, Kornella Brandkamp, and Boris Pergamenschikov.

I have enjoyed Tetzlaff’s playing in everything I have heard him do. He has a warm, penetrating tone, a middle way between Szigeti’s nasality and Milstein’s forceful, pulsating focus. Tetzlaff avoids making the march-like figures in the Adagio of the G Major Sonata–ostensibly written to commemorate Felix Schumann, Clara’s dying son–too funereal and repetitious, even while retaining their affecting character. There are moments when Tetzlaff’s phrasing reminds me of Heifetz in its directness and lack of emotional theatrics. I began to audition the cycle with the A Major Sonata, perhaps the most French of the group in style and tone, despite its open borrowing of two of Brahms’ own lieder for melodic tissue. Testzlaff and Vogt take the “amabile” indication for the opening Allegro movement quite literally. Vogt’s contributions throughout are tender and subdued, although he and Tetzlaff can emote forcefully in the D Minor Sonata, the appassionata of the trinity. The warm and consistently sympathetic playing that graces this disc seems in striking contrast to the liner photographs portraying the two artists in ensemble in some kind of factory setting – the heavy machinery reminding me of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, with the musicians apparently seeking to soften the dehumanizing effects of technology.

–Gary Lemco

John Adams' 9/11 Work JOHN ADAMS: On the Transmigration of Souls – Philip Smith, solo trumpet/New York Choral Artists/Brooklyn Youth Chorus/New York Philharmonic/Lorin Maazel – Nonesuch 79816-2 25 minutes ****:

The New York Philharmonic and Lincoln Center’s Great Performers series co-commissioned this new work from Adams in honor of the heroes and in memory of the victims of September 11. It was recorded during a concert in Avery Fisher Hall. David Schiff observes in the note booklet “I can think of no living composer, and few artists in other media, whose work is more informed by the pleasures and terrors, hopes and disenchantments, of contemporary life.” Adams’ present standing as the No. 1 composer living in America today made it almost a given that he would be given the commission to create a 9/11 composition for performance in New York. As Schiff says, “Talk about performance anxiety!”

It may at first seem one is shortchanged by only 25 minutes of music on the full price CD, but what could possibly be paired with this jarring, emotionally explosive work without compromising the dignity of the entire project? Adams describes his work as “a memory space.” It reminded me of Steve Reich’s work Different Trains in its use of both recorded sound effects and spoken voices of various people over the music. The pre-recorded effects are of New York street sounds and the voices are the readings of victims’ names by friends and family members. These extra-musical elements greatly broaden the understanding and appreciation of the work for a larger listening public who would probably be familiar with this mix from hearing movie soundtracks. And these “hooks” are needed because Adam’s music here is much more hard-edged and dissonant than his usual mix of Romanticism and Minimalism.

The various elements of the score are carefully manipulated to take the listener from a chaotic reaction to the unimagined catastrophe to a final spiritual uplifting with the chorus shouting the words Love and Light over and over on top of crashing waves of orchestral sound. The dynamic range of the recording is astounding, but I was wishing for a surround version to more fully communicate to the listener the impact of this very powerful work. Nonesuch issued one hi-res disc – perhaps this one will be the second.

- John Sunier

The following two albums tie in with the interview with Da-Hong Seetoo in our Special Features section this issue…
Geraldine Walther, viola Gilbert Kalish, piano
Geraldine Walther, viola – (Artist Series) – MOZART: Oboe Quartet; Trio for Clarinet, Viola and Piano “Kegelstatt;” SCHUMANN: Piano Quartet in E Flat Major; SCHOENBERG: Transfigured Night; HARBISON: “November 19, 1828” – with Gilbert Kalish, piano; Allan Vogel, oboe; Wu Han, piano, Jorja Fleezanis, violin; Carter Brey, cello: David Finckel, cello; Philip Setzer, violin; Colin Carr, cello, Anthony McGill, clarinet, The St. Lawrence String Quartet – Music@Menlo Live 2003 (2 CD-Rs) ****:

Gilbert Kalish, piano (Artist Series) – SCHUBERT: Violin Sonatina in A Minor; SCHUMANN: Piano Quartet in E Flat Major; DEBUSSY: Sonata for Cello and Piano; STRAVINSKY: Suite from A Soldier’s Tale; HARBISON: “November 19, 1828;” ROREM: Aftermath – with Philip Setzer, violin; Jorja Fleezanis, violin; Geraldine Walther, viola; David Finckel, cello; Carter Brey, cello; Anthony McGill, clarinet; Nathaniel Webster, baritone; Ani Kavafian, violin – Music@Menlo Live 2003 (2 CD-Rs) ****:

These are just two of the sets of live recordings made at the new Music@Menlo chamber music festival in Menlo Park and Palo Alto, California, which was launched just last year. Being situated in the middle of Silicon Valley it proved a natural to use the @ sign in the name of the festival founded by recording artists Wu Han (piano) and her husband David Finckel (cello). The recordings were all produced and engineered by Da-Hong Seetoo, who is interviewed by Robert Moon in this issue of AUDIOPHILE AUDITION. The recordings are also broadcast nationally by the festival’s broadcast partner Minnesota Public Radio.

As can be seen by the above titles, there is some duplication of selections in the two-disc sets in order to present a series of works involving the artist being presented. All the performances are at a very high level, with the added excitement and “juice” of live concertizing. Only once did I hear a noticeable clam, which is certainly to be expected in such a situation. The familiar Schumann Piano Quartet is one of the major pieces in both these collections. While not as gutsy as some commercial recorded versions, this one has a very natural string tone and more realistic physical size of the players on the soundstage. Transfigured Night is of course heard in the string sextet version, which offers a nice alternative to the string orchestra vehicle we normally hear. The work is prefaced by a reading of the poem which Schoenberg’s highly emotional work then depicts. John Harbison’s pieces on both programs may give listeners a start if they don’t look at the titles of the four movements. It quotes and transforms several Schubert themes since its title is the day the composer died and this is supposed to show Schubert in the next world. Some lovely unadorned Schubert is heard in his Violin Sonatina which opens the Kalish album. The stripped-down ensemble of Stravinsky’s original Soldier’s Tale is stripped even further in the arrangement of the snippets of marches, tangos and other music for the violin which is central to the tale, accompanied here only by clarinet and piano.

The micing is semi-distant as heard with most classical recordings made for radio broadcast. The soundstaging is very explicit and a nice feeling for the ambience of the performing space is preserved. But it would be even better if we were hearing the ambience recorded by Mr. Seetoo on two additional channels – as described in his interview. (The larger of two spaces used was St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Palo Alto.) I found that Pro Logic II added a quite natural soundfield of ambience information to the recordings. I wonder how these master tapes would sound via a higher resolution medium such as either 96K DVD-V or 192K DVD-A. The discs are made to order rather than commercially pressed. Note that if your particular disc player doesn’t handle CD-Rs (as my best Sony player does not) you will not be able to play these discs except perhaps in your computer. For more information visit the festival’s web site at www.musicatmenlo.org

- John Sunier




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