Classical CD Reviews
Classical CD Reviews, Part 1 of 2
Published on November 1, 2004
|November 2004 – Part 1 of 2 [Part 2]
GLAZUNOV: Symphony No. 5 in B-flat, Op. 55; The Seasons–Ballet, Op. 67 – Jose Serebrier conducts Scottish National Symphony Orchestra – Warner Classics 2564 61434-2 70: 31 (Distrib. WEA)****:
The Seasons has been a pleasant pastiche in my book since Ansermet first brought out its innocent charms. With a scenario by Petipa, the ballet is devoid of human character, just a series of anthropomorphisms who dance across the stage shedding their leaves or flakes. Tchaikovsky without tears. The Summer colors and the Autumn bacchanal are the supreme moments for lovers of Russian fare, and Serebrier delivers more than his fair share of vivid and kaleidoscopic effects. The beginnings of a complete Glazounov cycle? If so, Serebrier’s’ versions would easily compete with the standard set by Jarvi some years ago.
DVORAK: Symphony No. 6 in D Major, Op. 60; The Golden Spinning Wheel, Op. 10 – Sir Charles Mackerras conducts Czech Philharmonic Orchestra – Supraphon SU 3771-2 031 70:17 (Distrib. Qualiton)****:
That Sir Charles Mackerras (b. 1925) has assumed the mantle of his teacher and mentor Vaclav Talich seems confirmed by a number of recent issues on Supraphon, including the complete Ma Vlast of Smetana, ongoing surveys of Janacek&Mac226;s opera oeuvre, and the Dvorak Slavonic Dances and Legends. Collectors will recall with some amusement how the Symphony No. 6 of 1881 long enjoyed the appellation No.1 in the record catalogues, especially in its recorded version under Erich Leinsdorf. The D Major Symphony was, in fact, the first Dvorak symphony to achieve an international success with its fusion of Bohemian rhythms and melodies and Germanic sonata-form. The delicacy of the softer passages, along with the unbuttoned energy in the Furiant, make the symphony essential Dvorak fare. The fundamental optimism of the score shines through at every turn, and Mackerras has become a past master of orchestral transition and graduated crescendo. Like Talich, there is something a mite scholastic in the Mackerras sensibility, a shade of mysticism is lacking. But the sheer beauty and spontaneity of orchestral response is luminous, especially in a live performance. Mackerras plays the extended edition of The Golden Spinning Wheel (1896), a reading Talich avoided by severe cutting but the late Istvan Kertesz respected. Given the breadth of the uncut version, its fairy-tale elements of horror and poetic justice ring out in full, three-dimensional force. Recommended, as I suppose will be Mackerras&Mac226; entire symphony cycle.
SIBELIUS: Works for Violin and Piano = 5 Pieces, Op. 81; 4 Pieces, Op. 78; Danses champetres, Op. 106; 4 Pieces, Op. 115; 3 Pieces, Op. 116 – Pekka Kuusisto, violin/ Heini Kaekkaeinen, piano – Ondine ODE 1046-2 66:30****:
Two young Finnish musicians present the salon violin works of Jean Sibelius, recorded in Ainola (the Sibelius villa in Jaervenpaa), using the composer’s own Steinway grand piano. Originally trained as a violinist, Sibelius demurred on a concert career in favor of composition, creating several sets of violin miniatures 1915-1918 and 1924-1929, relatively intimate and personal mood-pieces serenely oblivious to the political strife of the period. The Steinway came to Sibelius on his 50th birthday, the gift of a subscription by a music-lovers’ society.
Most of the violin pieces are not spectacular virtuoso-display vehicles but rather modest character-pieces not far from the ethos of Fritz Kreisler, with perhaps a touch here and there of Wieniawski. The opening Mazurka from Op. 81 hints at the pyrotechnics of the Op. 87 Humoresques; the solemn Religioso from Op. 78 has a plaintive piano part that sounds like Bach-Busoni. It precedes a charming Rigaudon reminiscent! of the many spoofs of rococo style Kreisler perpetrated on an encore-mad public. The Danses champetres (1924) are folksy outdoor pieces in the manner of Grieg (especially Op. 106, No. 5), with the scale of numbers one and three (a gypsy dance) being more ambitious than the rest. The second of the Op. 106 set is a quirky polonaise. The 1929 sets, Op. 115/6 are among the last published works of Sibelius. The Grieg allusions remain strong, as in the Ballade Op. 115, No.2; and one particular work, The Bells, Op. 115, No. 4, has a piano part that might owe something to Debussy and Ravel. Youthful though they are, our duo musicians blend well, the violin of Pekka Kuusisto, a Giovanni Battista Guadagnini (1752), making affecting, poignant sense of this neglected repertory. The cover and booklet art are photos, historical and contemporary, of the Sibelius villa and family.
BACH, J.S. – Bach Concertos (for violin and diverse instruments) – Hilary Hahn, et al. Jeffrey Kahane, Cond./ Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra – DGG 474 639-2, 57:40 ****:
I have previously reviewed this recording of Bach violin concertos featuring Hilary Hahn. It is an excellent recording, and I wanted to mention it again because I recently had occasion to listen to it in direct comparison with the Alexander Sitkovetsky reading of, in particular, the Double Concerto, BWV 1043. Both readings are excellent. Sitkovetsky’s emphasis is on his beautiful tone and Bach’s long singing line. Hahn’s emphasis is on the counterpoint, perhaps one might say the mathematics of the piece. Hilary Hahn is gaining the reputation of having considerable intellect guiding her playing hand as well as her writing hand (in her own album notes). It is not surprising that her brisk tempi in playing this piece seem to emphasize fleetness of fingering, the dance-like approach to syncopation, while coaxing a certain golden tone from her instrument that expresses Hilary’s unique musical personality. Both are exquisite performances. One is lively; while the other is more involved in the long singing line. Either approach works well with Bach. The solution? Find room on your shelf for one of each. If you’re a Bach lover (and who isn’t?) you’ll find the SACD engineering really lights up the music, compared to the standard CD. I find SACD helps me follow the various lines more easily.
EDWARD ELGAR – Concerto for Violin and Orchestra – Hilary Hahn, violin: RALPH VAUGHAN-WILLIAMS – The Lark Ascending – Hilary Hahn, violin; Sir Colin Davis, Cond./ London Symphony Orchestra – DGG B0003026-02, 66:04 **** Also available in SACD:
If Hilary Hahn shows her ability to handle some of the more demanding of Bach’s writing for violin at the most brisk tempi in her first DG album, with Ralph Vaughan-Williams’ The Lark Ascending she shows her mastery of the long singing line, more pointedly, the even greater control required to play softly at slow tempi. As a matter of fact, she shows her ability to play loudly and softly, quickly and slowly, from the lowest to the highest register, here trilling, there double stopping. Whatever the music calls for, she is always in total control. And, if she is taken with the mathematical aspects of Bach, the Lark shows her equally comfortable in the impressionistic sphere, the equivalent watercolor tone poems of English sunsets, that Vaughan-Williams invokes. Again, from The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music, “The basis of his music is melody, rhythm sometimes being unsubtle, but its visionary quality, as in the masque Job and the 5th and 9th symphonies, its broad humanity, and its appeal at several levels make it a remarkable expression of the national spirit in music just as the man himself personified all that was best in the liberal 19th century tradition of which he was a scion.” I’d add The Lark Ascending to the short-list of Vaughan-Williams’ Greatest Hits, especially in the hands of Hilary Hahn. It is no wonder critics from every record-reviewing publication are getting in line to sing her praises, no wonder Time Magazine has proclaimed her, “America’s best young classical musician.” If you listen to her play Bach, Elgar, and Vaughan-Williams, you might likely jump on the Hilary Bandwagon, too. Great playing. Sir Colin and the LSO capture the (for me) somewhat mystical tone of this work spot-on. This is one of those records where the soloist, the orchestra, and the recording engineers got it right. If you like Elgar, or Vaughan-Williams, or Hilary Hahn, you go out and get it, right? Highly recommended.
– Max Dudious [This review also appears in the current issue of Positive Feedback.]
BRAHMS: Piano Sonata No. 3 in F Minor, Op. 5; 7 Fantasien, Op. 116; 4 Klavierstuecke, Op. 119 – Jon Nakamatsu, piano -
Nakamatsu gives the Brahms F Minor Sonata a grand, rhetorical whirl. Its bumpy syncopations seem to elicit the reveler in Nakamatsu, with his punching out the various, rhythmic and motivic debts to Beethoven. On the other hand, there is a clear Schumann connection in the music, with its dreamy allusions to Eusebius, especially in the D-flat Major episode in the Andante espessivo. What is evident in Nakamatsu’s rendition is his studied sense of musical architecture, the calculated pauses and accelerations that mark the emotional peaks in this labyrinthine work.
While the 1890 Op. 116 Fantasies have had diverse applications, from Gilels to Gieseking, Katchen to Kempff, Nakamatsu has his own ideas regarding their mercurial, protean harmonies and asymmetrical rhythmic groupings. The A Minor Intermezzo enjoys lovely, quick filigree and pearly play even in the course of its melancholy musings. Nakamatsu delicately negotiates their quirky mix of intimacy and sudden velocity. The Op. 119 opens with a slow Intermezzo: Adagio, played as an exquisite moment of rainy-day music, though not so mordantly as Glenn Gould molded it. The remaining two intermezzi and E-flat Rhapsody remind me of Rubinstein’s way with these sleek, economical and wistful pieces (Rubinstein never recorded Op. 119, No. 1), with the optimistic, extroverted display saved for the last. Both Brahmsians and Nakamatsu collectors will want this one. Kudos to engineer Brad Michel for ravishing piano sound.
CELTIC CARAVANS: The Road to Romanticism – Julianne Baird, soprano. Linda Burman-Hall and Lux Musica – MSR Classics (74 mins.):
A gorgeous, generous recital of music that I love deeply from a label that is new to me. The label is Westchester County, New York-based MSR Classics, a division of Squires Music Productions, a recording company founded in 1974. They have a large enterprising catalogue which can be purchased either directly from MSR (msrcd.com) or through Amazon. I first came across the label when Gramophone asked me to review what turned out to be a sensational organ recital by Stephen J. Ketterer, playing on a brand new Beckerath tracker organ. I immediately requested a sampling of recent release, and have been enchanted by much of what I’ve heard.
On this current CD, the music is all Scottish, Welsh and Irish folk songs, some in the originals but most in the wonderful, deeply affectionate settings by Haydn. Without surrendering the sturdy forthrightness of the original music and words, or undermining their simple, lyrical beauty, and without making his doing it sound pretentious in any way, shape or form, Haydn managed to lend the music a unique world-class sophistication which has never lost its charm.
Gregory K. Squires’ sound rivals similar efforts by another American independent, Dorian. The amazing Baird’s exceptional, lightly nuanced voice is naturally reproduced (and has never sounded younger or fresher), with no sense of strain. The same is true of the original instrument keyboards on which Linda Burman-Hall, founder and Artistic Director of the Santa Cruz Baroque Festival, plays. The small Lux Musica ensemble (flute, violin and cello) enhances the sensual pleasures of the music.
- Laurence Vittes
MENDELSSOHN: Violin Concerto in D Minor; PANUFNIK: Violin Concerto; TAKEMITSU: Nostalgia; BACH: Double Concerto in D Minor- Alexander Sitkovetsky, violin/ New European Strings Chamber Orchestra/ Dimitry Sitkovetsky.-Angel Records 7243 5 57440 2 9 ****:
This Sitkovetsky-Sitkovetsky recording strikes a nice balance between the metronomic and passionate Bach. The violin playing is gorgeous. The string orchestra is well defined with clearly heard melodic lines and very natural dynamic range.The recording venue, Henry Wood Hall in London, seems ideal for this music. There is a natural yet not overbearing resonance which adds tonal sheen to this beautifully wrought performance.
Andrej Panufik’s concerto was written for Yehudi Menuhin in 1972 and first performed in London with Menuhin as soloist. Alexander Sitkovetsky was a student of Lord Menuhin and is deeply involved in this concerto. The long languorous open singing lines and Mahlerian intensity of the middle Adagio is communicated with true conviction and burnished tone by Alexander. The NES strings under Dimitry provide an exquisite partnership.
The 13 year old Mendelssohn D minor concerto is a buoyant work played with great brio by Alexander. His tone rivals the silvery sound of the young Joshua Bell. This is unmistakably early, but nonetheless vital Mendelssohn, replete with the young master’s full measure of melody and mastery of classical devices. The chamber orchestra accompaniment is of comparable excellence.
The reflective funereal 15 minute Nostalgia is given a controlled beautifully paced and shaped reading by Alexander Sitkovetsky. It is one of a group of musical memorials, composed by Takemitsu late in his career to three of his friends. Alexander’s heartfelt performance belies the fact that he was 19 when making this recording. Four diverse gorgeously performed and recorded violin selections! Most highly recommended.
- Ronald Legum
SHOSTAKOVICH: – Symphonies 5 & 9 – Valery Gergiev / Kirov Orchestra – Philips 470 651-2, 73:30, ****:
If you’ve never read about the birth of his Symphony #5, I’ll try to go through it briefly here. After a successful run of Lady Macbeth, in 1936 Shostakovich fell under attack by a writer in Pravda, the official state newspaper. Reports held the opera was filled with “leftist distortion,” “petty-bourgeois sensationalism,” “formalism,” and I don’t know what-all counterrevolutionary subversion. In 1937 Shostakovich replied with his 5th symphony, subtitled, “A Soviet artist’s practical creative reply to just criticism.” This was a “politically correct” symphony if ever there was one, a symphony that became and has remained one of his most popular. It paints an uplifting, positive picture of the Soviet Socialist People’s Republic. It is, however, a standard reading of the work as it might have sounded at the time of its first performance, I’d guess. Which is pretty damn good. Valery Gergiev is not considered something of a national treasure for nothing. But it is standard brand. There is not one satirical phrase to be found.
Also on the same CD is Shostakovich’s 9th. Here the picture is quite other. Compared with the RCA recording by Yuri Temirkanov and the St. Petersberg Philharmonic (1991), or the Serge Koussevitsky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra (1946) recordings, Gergiev takes the first movement 25% slower. The other two race through the first movement so quickly the details get a bit lost. Perhaps these performances were protecting Shostakovich from himself, racing headlong through the opening movement so that nothing could be viewed as subversive. Gergiev’s slower reading allows for many small phrases to be accented. This in turn allows for a greater degree of irony. What is considered the “authoritative” tempo of the earlier readings (The BSO version was recorded while Shostakovich was still alive, and, I think, in his presence.) is now seen as rushed, and the more leisurely tempo allows the work to seem more ironic.
According to The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music, “All his [Shostakovich’s] works are marked by emotional extremes—tragic intensity, grotesque and bizarre wit, humor, parody, and savage sarcasm.” The 9th symphony would come at the end of the war against the Nazis. It was expected to be a large work with soloists and chorus expressing, as he himself said, “the greatness of the Russian people … our Red Army liberating our native land from the enemy.” Instead it seemed like a Julius Fucik piece for Circus Band, or something Nino Rota might have written for the score to a Federico Fellini film – very light and humorous, razz-a-ma-tazz and fluffy. It was considered inappropriate, even by one American critic. In this version, Valery Gergiev and the Kirov Orchestra demonstrate just how subversive Shostakovich’s savage wit could get. Watch out!
This pair of symphonies demonstrates what a complex character Shostakovich was. Seldom do we get such insight into the dynamic of a composer’s personality than by the juxtaposition of these two works. Usually someone like Carl Haas or Peter Schickele will find and broadcast two such pieces and then comment upon them. The way in which these two symphonies are presented makes an interesting album. I find them a must for anyone who values Shostakovich as a great and satiric composer of the 20th century. Good music, well performed, and well recorded, with the bonus of good album notes. Highly recommended.
– Max Dudious [This review also appears in the current issue of Positive Feedback.]
VITTORIO GHIELMI: Short Tales for a Viol – Vittorio Ghielmi, treble viol, tenor viol, lyra viol, bass viol – Winter & Winter 910 085-2 (53 mins.):
36-year old Italian virtuoso Vittorio Ghielmi continues his series of innovative recordings (including Pièces de Caractère for Opus 111 and Bagpipes From Hell for Winter & Winter) with a dazzling demonstration of what the treble viol and three of its cousins can do. Whether it’s the high jinks of William Corkine’s “Whoope doe me,” or the profound beauties of a Tobias Hume pavane, this collection of 17th century English music is a must for aficionados and aspiring students alike.
Born in Milan, Ghielmi studied with Wieland Kuijken and Christophe Coin, and has performed with both the very Establishment Vienna Philharmonic and the very radical chic Il Giardino Armonico. In addition to making the usual gently pretty noises characteristic of the gamba family, Ghielmi negotiates the retunings known as scordaturas, and the occasional col legno effects (snapping the string against the fingerboard) with ease. If you ever though the gamba family was too revered and polite, this CD will make you think again.
The sumptuous sound, recorded at Villa Medici-Giulini in Briosco, Italy, has an appropriately exciting edge to it. The Villa, which is surrounded by a magnificent garden, contains an important Italian collection of keyboard instruments, all restored and played regularly in concerts), dating from the 17th century to recent years. Regine Vetter’s notes are good if short, and the luxurious packaging is what we have come to expect from the label.
- Laurence Vittes
BANG ON A CAN: Bang on a Can Meets Kyaw Kyaw Naing – Cantaloupe CA21023 ****:
According to Cantaloupe’s web site, “Kyaw Kyaw Naing is a renowned master of the pat waing, the Burmese Drum Circle, a traditional instrument made of 21 separately tuned drums. These drums surround the player completely, and are played melodically at lightning fast speed.” Kyaw Kyaw Naing’s music is quite popular at kick-boxing tournaments. I’ve never heard anything like it. I’ve listened to it ten times and could listen to it twenty more and still discover new elements. “Improvisation” begins with Naing’s percussion section, accompanied by an instrumental ostinato, then hands over the solo parts to the clarinet, guitar, and cello–jazz-American style. It’s a winner, just like every other cut on this wondrous CD.
– Peter Bates
BRYN TERFEL – Bryn Terfel Sings Favorites – Bryn Terfel, with Andrea Bocelli, Sissel, The London Voices, Terry Edwards, Dir./ London Symphony Orchestra/Barry Wordsworth – DGG 474 638-2, 73:46: [2 discs] ***:
If you love Bryn Terfel so much that anything he hums or whistles turns to gold in your ears, that’s great; you’ll love this. For most of the rest of us this will be a “good news/bad news” kind of album. I’ll start with the good news. This recording has some of the best sound DG has authored. There are some selections that have Bryn singing lead, backed by a chorus, and a full orchestra, and difficult as it may seem to some labels, DG gets everything balanced and in perspective, no small feat.
Bryn’s super-macho version of Bizet’s “Toreador’s Song,”and his and Bocelli’s version of Bizet’s fabled “The Pearl Fishers’ Duet” are outstanding. The singing in the duet is spot-on and effortless. It doesn’t beg, but rather demands comparison with the definitive versions, say, of Jussi Bjoerling and Robert Merrill (1950). Though theirs is more than a half-century old now, it is still easy to hear just how masterful and leisurely their singing was (RCA 7799-2-RG). Bryn Terfel and Andrea Bocelli match their relaxed presentation. (Some tenors sound as though they will bust a gut going up for the high notes.) Bryn and Andrea are so consummately artful, by being so apparently artless, their singing seems just the next thing to breathing. And the modern SACD engineering is quite an improvement. Gangbusters! If you have a warm spot somewhere for Bizet, this one’s for you.
There is something about the traditional “Danny Boy” that I’ve liked whether sung by Bryn or Bill Monroe of Bluegrass fame. I’ve heard it argued (on NPR) that rather than having evolved from a folk song, it was written as a Music Hall song, for a forgotten Irish tenor who could go up and hit the high notes. It gained popularity because it was a beautiful song that tugged at the heart strings, and later earned such universal acceptance it became as if a folk song. NPR said no true folk song ever had such high notes because so few can sing them. In this performance I particularly liked the hushed beginning, the Ralph Vaughan-Williams mysterious work in the strings, and the Celtic harp turn that lent authenticity, a nice touch. The singing, oh my, the singing was so right, so tender, so heartfelt that it mists me over listening to it now. Just when you think you know what’s coming, that Bryn will go up and punch the final phrases with his big bad baritone, he shifts to his high falsetto and sings it triple pianissimo. My women (my wife, La Dudeen; my daughter, La Dudette) listen through it dry-eyed, but just about each of the guys I’ve played it for was at least a little touched. If you ever had issues with your father or son, and who hasn’t, this one will grab you somewhere deep beneath your usual defenses.
And then there is the charming “Bella Notte,” from Walt Disney’s opera The Lady and The Tramp. I always liked this obviously romantic bit of fluff, but didn’t know exactly why. When I read in the liner notes that Norwegian-American Peggy Lee had a hand in writing this Italian-American favorite, the song and she gained even greater stature. A very pleasant surprise it was indeed, confirming what I’d always thought: Peggy Lee had exquisite taste and seldom did wrong. The “Ave Maria,” in duet with Sissel and supported by The London Voices was another surprise. There are some people who get by with one name: Madonna, Cher, Ali, Shaq. Sissel seems to be another who doesn’t need two names. She is well-enough established, and has a clear enough voice, to be invited to sing with Bryn Terfel, and young enough in her career to gain, what the pollsters call “a bounce in popularity” for it. Her voice is of the type that prompted the old cliché, “Clear as a bell.” She may have the right stuff to go on and become one more of DG’s stable of young classical stars, along with pianist Lang Lang, violinist Hilary Hahn, soprano Anna Netrebko, and Bryn who is still relatively young. Keep an ear out for the singing of soprano Sissel and tenor Andrea Bocelli. They bear watching and hearing.
And the bad news is, with the exception of Brahms’ “Lullaby,” and Hoagy Carmichael’s “Lazybones,” I didn’t find any of the following songs could hold my interest on a long car trip to Maine: They are “Shenandoah,” “Bugeilio’r Gwenith Gwyn,” “The Lord Is My Shepherd,” “Goin’ Home,” “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “Home Sweet Home,” “Il Mio Cuorre Va,” “At The River,” “None But The Lonely Heart,” “If I Can Help Somebody,” and “Abide With Me.” I thought the production, the type of setting given each of the songs, often with full symphony orchestra and (sometimes) chorus, was often overblown for the type of song. There were no songs of amber unrequited love, or green-eyed jealousy, or white-hot hate that might have made (for me) a more polychromatic mix. But, as the French say, “Chacun a son goût.” One man’s favorite is the next man’s anathema. All in all, a lively, well-sung album, with some outstanding numbers that make it a must for Bryn Terfel fans. Recommended with caveats. With excellent singing and good engineering, worth three stars.
– Max Dudious [This article also appears in the current issue of Positive Feedback.]