Classical CD Reviews
Classical CD Reviews, Part 1 of 2
Published on December 1, 2004
BARTOK: Violin Sonatas – Christian Tetzlaff, violin/Leif Ove Andsnes, piano – Virgin Classics 7243 5 45668 2, 78:42****:
The Bartok Violin Sonatas Nos. 1 and 2 were composed 1921-1922, and they reveal the influence of German serialism, Debussy, and folk music, all crossed fertilized by a post-WW I angst and hypertension we see in the paintings of Egon Schiele. The Solo Sonata (1944) is the product of a commission from Yehudi Menuhin to the dying Bartok, and the result is a monumental piece combining the strict polyphony of Bach, wedded to a virtuosic, often incandescent spirituality in an academically fluent Magyar tradition.
The First Sonata is a fitful fever of inspiration, marked by convulsive writing for the piano part and quirky paroxysms for the violin. There is a nervous tonal fixity around C# Minor. Only a touch of Debussy’s dreamy textures alleviates the storms of the Allegro appassionato. The last movement anticipates the perpetual motion of the Concerto for Orchestra, a wild village dance that might be Bartok’s answer to the Liszt Mephisto waltzes. The violin sings in a kind of demented lyrical way throughout the tumult. The Second Sonata (which Bartok and Szigeti recorded) is in a more traditional, lassu-friss structure, rife with Transylvanian folk influences. Another Roumanian perpetual motion machine makes the last movement a frenzied stampede in acrobatic figures. The four movement Solo Sonata remains a valedictory last-will-and-testament in Bartok’s oeuvre, a summation of the polyphonic and ethnically-inspired, modal writing that informs all of his work after the Budapest Academy. Taken together, the three sonatas form something of a Bartok lexicon of violin artistry across which Tetzlaff negotiates with impressive flair. Tetzlaff’s wiry tone seems a blend of Szigeti and Kremer, intelligent and ardent at once. Pianist Andsnes, a secure virtuoso on his own, complements the vivid proceedings with sympathy and passion. The disc is an hour of very tense, rarified emotions distilled through a personal classicism. To be taken in small doses.
SCHUBERT: Sonata in B-flat Major, D. 960; Moments Musicaux, D. 780 – Andrew Rangell, piano – Bridge 9153 77:06 (Distrib. Albany)****:
Juilliard graduate Andrew Rangell made a splash about five years ago with some recordings of Beethoven, Chopin, and Bach for the Dorian label, and his New York recital in 2002 won some important admirers. His style a cross between the pointillist detached approach of Glenn Gould and the severe, studied, harmonic layering of Sviatoslav Richter, Rangell has a big technique and broad palette of colors. Solid piano reproduction of the Hamburg Steinway D courtesy of engineer Thomas Stephenson.
Rangell’s musical culture is broad, as his liner notes for this all-Schubert album testify. Given the “heavenly length” of the B-flat Sonata’s opening movement, Rangell manages to invest tension and sustained interest in the interplay of shifts of registration, the dark trill, and the harmonic modulations between G-flat, F Major, and B-flat; then C-sharp Minor and an unruly enharmonic shift to D-flat Major which characterize the Manichean struggle that lasts over twenty minutes. I find Rangell’s playing of the C-sharp minor Andante quite affecting. The middle section of the Scherzo, set in B-flat Minor, has Rangell making quick syncopated adjustments with quirky humor. An Apollinian wistfulness graces the finale, with its strange amalgam of G Major and B-flat, where the long episodes attain some majesty.
The Moments Musicaux, a collection of pieces that date 1823-1828, place large major-mode pieces around shorter pieces in a minor key. I have always favored the No. 4, with its Bach-like figures and eccentric middle section with a skewed downbeat. Like Richter, Rangell lingers lovingly over the pedal-tones, relishing the sudden shifts into happier moods. Much-traversed repertory, true; but played by a special colorist who has gathered a mystique and cult following demanding of our attention.
HANDEL: Serse (complete opera) – Les Arts Florissants, cond. William Christie – Serse: Anne Sofie von Otter; Arsamene: Lawrence Zazzo; Amastre:Silvia Tro Santafe; Ariodate: Giovanni Furlantto; Romilda: Elizabeth Norberg-Schulz; Atalanta: Sandrine Piau; Elviro: Antonio Abete – EMI Angel 45711-2 – 159 minutes, ****:
”Sophisticatedly charming needlepoint music,” the great musicologist Paul Lang called Handel’s opera Serse, a strange characterization of a piece based on the putative love conquests of the Persian king Xerses. When it premiered in 1738, the opera puzzled audiences, who weren’t sure whether it was an opera buffa or just a farce, so it closed after five performances. However, it is more of a hybrid, far more sophisticated and modern than stock opera buffa, containing satirical elements about royalty similar to that in Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. It opens with the touching and justly anthologized “Ombra mai fu,” a tender aria Serse (von Otter) sings to a tree. Her rage and love arias are well-performed throughout. Other singers have mixed performances. As Amastre, Silvia Tro Santafe sings “Anima infida,” that jewel of operatic writing, with a voice that lacks character and sophistication. And as Ariodate, vassal to Serse, Giovanni Furlantto could have hammed up his part a bit. Antonio Abete is a delight as Elviro, however, performing his recitatives with comic aplomb. And Sandrine Piau’s Atalanta sings “No, no, se tu mi sprezzi” with fiery determination, her high notes and tempo drops very professional. As 3-CD opera sets go, this is a good one to purchase. Now I have a question for the industry. Why release operas on CD at all? Why not on hybrid CDs with DVDs on one side and CDs on the other, like Universal does with some of its pop titles? That way you could play them in your car if you’re so inclined. Frankly, reading a libretto to a CD opera performance doesn’t compare to seeing that opera on DVD. And with everyone getting DVD players these days, and a DVD costing roughly as much as a 3-CD set, why bother with CD operas at all? They will soon be dinosaurs. Give listeners the choice of listening media on the same disc, for a while at least. Just a thought.
SIBELIUS: Piano Trios, Vol. 2 = Piano Trio in D Major, “Korpo”; Andantino in G Minor; Allegretto in A-flat Major; Piano Trio in C, “Loviso”; Allegro in D Minor; Allegretto in E-flat; Alla Marcia in C – Jaakko Kuusisto, violin/Marko Yloenen, cello/Folke Graesbeck, piano – BIS-CD 1292 66:37 (Distr. Qualiton) ****:
This is a happy, well-recorded disc, a compendium of world premier recordings of Sibelius chamber music for piano trio, 1887-1895. Sibelius, his sister Linda, and brother Christian made music at the Korpo kyrkby village, where, at Korpo manor, Ina Wilenius, a good pianist, prepared the complete Beethoven piano trios for the Sibelius family’s delectation. Certainly, the Beethoven or Haydn influences run strong throughout these youthful works, which is not to deny their original vigor, craftsmanship, and melos. So much did Sibelius imbibe of the classical repertory, he later (1915) claimed to have composed one new trio for each summer over the course of seven years in the 1880s.
Part of the raison d’etre for this CD set is to help create a complete Sibelius edition of his works, which includes the piano trios and assorted fragments, many of which have neither title nor tempo markings. The largest work in this group, the so-called Korpo Trio in D Major (1887), conforms to the sonata-form of the classical masters, its series of running figures notwithstanding. A distinct fugato section borrows from Bach’s Well-Tempered Klavier. What is unique is the second movement Fantasia’s doubling as slow movement and scherzo, a technique we see later in the Fifth Symphony. The sonata-rondo form of the finale is pure Haydn. The smaller pieces play like experiments in texture and contour, like the Allegretto in A-flat, whose 6/8 meter makes it a quick siciliano. The Allegretto in E-flat adumbrates the Intermezzo from Karelia, Op. 11. The D Minor Allegro (1889) combines Aeolian and Dorian modal elements. The so-called “Lovisa” Trio has been recorded prior. It celebrates a happy sensibility, and the slow movement in a modal A Minor has the stately sonority of a ballad. The Alla Marcia in C is a study for a form Sibelius favored again in Karelia and again in the Humoresque Op. 87, No. 2.
It becomes joyfully obvious that the Finnish musicians on this disc delight in chamber music as much as did the composer. Pianist Folke Graesbeck has made a mission of performing the Sibelius oeuvre, having inherited the mantle of his teacher Erik Tawaststjerna. The other two musicians each direct their own music festivals in Finland.
YSAYE: Sonatas for Solo Violin, Op. 27 – Thomas Zehetmair, violin – ECM New Series 1835 65:53 (Distrib. Universal) ****:
Thomas Zehetmair (b. 1961) is a Salzburg musician whose studies involved Nathan Milstein and Max Rostal. Zehetmair impressed me about ten years ago with a number of recordings for Teldec in the music of Beethoven and Schubert. His is a vibrant, piercing tone, very clear and fluent, and it generates its own efficient energy. Zehetmair applies his intelligent and audacious skills to the set of six sonatas written by Eugene Ysaye 1923/24 in honor of both Bach and six contemporary violinists of the period: Szigeti, Thibaud, Enescu, Kreisler, Crickboom, and Quiroga. The first two sonatas are the largest in scale, the most indebted to Bach, each rife with stunning, virtuoso effects cultivated by Ysaye’s own musical style. The G Minor Sonata, in the same key as Bach’s own Sonata No. 1, is tailored to Szigeti’s long thin lines, and his penchant for the neo-classical trim in his repertory.
The Sonata No. 2 in A Minor opens with an “obsessional” series of riffs taken from Bach’s E Major Partita, undercut by allusions to the plainchant Dies Irae, a sort of violinist’s parallel to Rachamninov’s own bias. Whether dedicatee Thibaud was as singular-minded, I know not. The muted effects in the Malinconia section are striking. Sonatas Three through Six are relatively compressed, with only the No. 4 in E Minor (dedicated to Kreisler) showing any debts to classical style, or more precisely the baroque style of allemande and sarabande rounded off by a frenetic gigue. The highly chromatic D Minor Ballade, dedicated to Enescu, is dynamite in Zehetmair’s hands, a stunning audiophile cut, the opening quasi-recitativo a spray of colors. The G Major Sonata gravitates between diatonism and sudden dissonance, suggesting that dedicatee Crickboom had a good span and quick articulation of bow positions. The last Sonata in E is a kind of extended habanera for Manuel Quiroga. It is a fantasy in the manner of unaccompanied Sarasate. That Zehetmair traverses the many styles and technical pitfalls with aplomb and musical moxey is recommendation enough, but the clean ECM sonics push the entire production right into the stratosphere.
BEETHOVEN: The Complete 32 Piano Sonatas [on 1 disc!] – Seymour Lipkin, piano – Newport Classic MusicPlayByPlay DVD-ROM NRM 59001. Ten hours of high quality digital audio MP3 files of the sonatas, plus complete sheet music (over 600 pages in pdf files), and an essay on Beethoven’s piano music ****:
This is surely a first – ALL of the Beethoven Piano Sonatas on a single optical disc! Perhaps I should amend my pooh-poohing of MP3 “ripping.” The fidelity of these high-sample-rate MP3 files doesn’t sound bad at all on casual listening, even on a quality audio system. I used both my Rotel 1050 player which handles MP3s, and the McCormack universal player reviewed in our component reviews this issue. The sound was not exceptional but neither could you point out anything seriously wrong with it.
That is until you put on the standard CD 3-volume set (6 discs altogether) of this which we will be reviewed here next month. The the MP3 version sounds like a rather poor imitation – flat, compressed dynamics and generally the life having been taken out of it. The comparison sounded similar to the A/B-ing of the same piano recording on a standard CD with one on an SACD, but ramped up a bit in the problems being more blatant. Each of the sonatas has its own sound file, but you can just let it play and it will go from one to another in succession like tracks on a standard CD. The early sonatas come off the best since they don’t stress out the dynamics and transients as do some of the later ones.
Getting every bit of the sheet music for all 32 sonatas is quite an accomplishment too. Knowing the cost of sheet music today, this little disc has got be quite a bargain. But then you have to figure in going thru a lot of laser jet ink cartridges to print out all 32 sonatas. The essay on Beethoven by NPRs resident disc reviewer Ted Libbey is excellent reading too. Lipkin is not just any old pianist with the energy to make it thru all these sonatas. He studied with Rudolf Serkin and Howszowski and has conducted several orchestras, including the New York Philharmonic and the Joffrey Ballet. His is known for his Beethoven cycles, which have covered not only all the piano sonatas but the five piano concertos and the five cello-piano sonatas. This is a path-breaking CD-ROM that would make a great companion to any higher-fidelity set on CD or vinyl.
– John Sunier
Two blockbuster choral-orchestral works from Naxos…
WILLIAM BOLCOM: Songs of Innocence and of Experience (William Blake) – 13 Vocal Soloists/Choirs/University of Michigan School of Music Symphony Orchestra/University Musical Society/Leonard Slatkin – Naxos American Classics 8.559216-18 (3 disc set), 2:17:11, ****:
This massive song cycle has been composer Bolcom’s preoccupation for many years and he was unsure the entire piece would ever be recorded following its original premiere 20 years ago. It involves over 450 musicians and takes well over two hours – outdoing even Mahler on length. Bolcolm had worked on the piece over a period of 25 years. Its stimulus was the composer’s fascination with Blake’s 46 poems which traverse a wide range of feelings and emotions, from childlike innocence to the experiences of adult life. Bolcom determined at age 17 that he would set all of the poems to music eventually, and he did.
Blake espoused the principle of contraries – good vs. evil, dark vs. light, etc. and Bolcom made this central to all his compositions – not just this one. He is known for shifting suddenly in many of his works from an academic serial style to a rocking boogie-woogie or corny march tune – you name it. Just as Blake matched his ideas to a wide variety of poetic diction, Bolcom matches the words to a variety of unexpected musical styles. The Shepherd’s Song comes a country and western tune, the Divine Image finale a reggae. And the various pop-culture music sounds very sincere and listenable – not just an attempt to shock. If you ever envisioned Tyger, tyger, Burning Bright with music, here it is. Various guest soloists were brought in for some of these non-classical contrasting sections – a folk/blues performer, a gospel singer, a harmonica player, for example. And the harmonica is not the only instrument Bolcolm adds to the orchestra that is not normally found there. As he noted in the program for the work’s premiere, “…Blake used his whole culture…high-flown and vernacular, as sources for his many poetic styles…all I did was use the same stylistic point of departure Blake did in my musical settings.”
One critic called the work “the greatest achievement of synthesis in American music since Porgy and Bess.” In spite of its great size the work had 16 complete performances including its l984 premiere in Stuttgart, Germany. The key to getting it recorded was the cooperation of both the many musical forces at the University of Michigan Music Department, where Bolcom teaches, and of Naxos Records. Recording it live and with many non-professional performers also made it possible for this 3-CD set to be issued. And to retain the participation of noted conductor Leonard Slatkin, whose discography numbers over 100 recordings. But the performing level of all participants is very high and the sound excellent – though with such large forces it is unfortunate it can’t be heard in multichannel. This may be a mongrel masterpiece, but is thrillingly originative and certainly never boring. You might want to listen to it one CD at a time, there’s so much going on in each section of the work.
– John Sunier
SIR CHARLES VILLIERS STANFORD: Requiem; Excerpts from The Veiled Prophet of Khorassan – Fraces Lucey & Virginia Kerr, soprano; Colette McGahon, mezzo; Peter Kerr, tenor; Nigel Leeson-Williams, bass/ RTE Philharmonic Choir/RTE Nat. Symphony Orchestra of Ireland/Adrian Leaper (Colman Pearce cond. the opera excerpts) – Naxos 8.555201-02 (2 discs), 104:29 ****:
Requiems in general are my favorite sort of choral/orchestral liturgical music – probably from once singing in the Berlioz Requiem under Dmitri Mitropolous, as well as once having a girlfriend whose LP collection consisted of nothing but requiems. Don’t know how I missed this spectacularly beautiful one though. This is the world premiere recording of it.
Stanford, who lived until l924, was a major figure in the English musical world who retained a strong Irish identification. He wrote seven symphonies and over 30 works for chorus and orchestra, of which the Requiem is just one. The size of the work and its performing forces may remind one of the Berlioz and Verdi Requiems, but Stanford doesn’t shake the rafters nearly as wildly in his Dies irae section as did those composers. He uses his orchestra to support the vocal forces and interesting instrumental soloing. Like another English symphonist of the same time, Hubert Parry, Stanford’s music showed a strong influence of the great German masters (as did American composers of the time). The Requiem was written for the funeral of the famed British painter Lord Leighton, who had had many musical friendships. Stanford was a Protestant setting a central text of the Catholic Church. He used the four vocal soloists in a dramatic way, much as in the Verdi work. In fact the Requiem has much of the sweep of Italian opera about it. There are many lovely melodies in the seven sections of the work, and the sonic quality and balances of this l994 recording are excellent. The four excerpts from one of Stanford’s operas are all instrumental, also tuneful and slightly exotic in keeping with the evident setting of the opera.
– John Sunier
BEETHOVEN: String Quartet No. 12 in E-flat major Op. 127 (Transcribed for string orchestra) – Academy of St. Martin in the Fields/Murray Perahia; Piano Sonata no. 28 in A major Op. 101 – Murray Perahia, piano – Sony Classical SK 93043, 57:14 ****:
Perahia makes his recording debut as a conductor here; he is now the Principal Conductor of the ASMF. The reason no one is credited for the transcription of the Beethoven Quartet is that what is being played by the string orchestra is no more or less than the notes Beethoven wrote. It is just that the parts are played by whole sections of the string orchestra instead of individual instruments of the full orchestra. A doublebass line doubles the cellos, adding low end richness to the sound. At times the Quartet No. 12 sounds like it could be Beethoven’s Tenth Symphony. Perahia observes that in the slow movement one can hear how Mahler was influenced by Beethoven.
Perahia chose as the partner work on the CD the Piano Sonata Op. 101, playing from the new critical edition which won’t be published until next year. He is a co-editor of the new edition which corrects many errors they have cript into existing published version of the sonatas. There are links with the Op. 127 quartet: Both are full of harmonic aring and both end in a fugal finale. The Sonata is extremely challenging on both musical and technical levels, and it has a similar spiritual depth to the late quartets. The piano tone, originally recorded with Sony’s DSD system, is rich and present though again the instrument sounds far too large.
– John Sunier
MOZART: 16 Early Symphonies , K 16 thru K 75a – Concentus Musicus Wien/Nikolaus Harnoncourt – Deutsche Harmonia mundi 82876 63970-2 (2 CDs), 75:20, 65:19 ****:
These earliest symphonies of the very young Mozart lack numbering as carried out on some previous recordings – probably due to conflicts over the proper ordering, which does not necessarily follow the K numbers. The works are however identified by date and key. As Harnoncourt himself says in the notes, recording these works they “were all simply astounded – flabbergasted, in fact. Are these really the works of a child aged between 8 and 12?”
The Sinfonias display an incredible level of inspiration and techncal expertise. The very first one briefly uses a theme which years later becaome the main finale theme of Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony. There are dancelike minuets in many different styles, and the “hunting finales” in many of the works seem to picture the royal sport in all its excitement. Some of the symphonies present us with such a wealth of musical events that they are like mini-operas, parading the various characters past our ears. The variety of moods and sounds from similar short three or four-movement structures is quite amazing. Harnoncourt keeps an appropriate light mood and never lets tempi falter. Sonics are superb, recording in the SOTA Teldex Studio in Berlin. A rewarding package for any Mozart fan, and who isn’t?
– John Sunier