Classical CD Reviews

Classical CD Reviews Part 1 of 2


Published on March 1, 2005

March 2005 – Part 1 of 2  [Part 2]
 

Alessio Bax piano recital Khouri plays Chopin Gideon Kremer, violin Kuerti plays Beethoven sonatas Vladar plays Brahms
Rangell piano recital From the Time of Reimenscheider Schubert Trout Quintet Simpson Symphony No. 11
Schubert Lieder

Alessio Bax: Baroque ReflectionsALESSIO BAX: Baroque Reflections – Bax, piano – Warner Classics 2564 61695-2 (69 mins.):

For something entirely different in a mostly Bachian vein, young and winsome Italian-born Alessio Bax’s debut disc for Warner Classic can’t be beat. Comprising seven instrumental works from the Baroque era transcribed for the piano by 19th or early 20th century masters (the exception being Bach’s keyboard version of Marcello’s D minor oboe concerto), the CD constitutes a survey of one particularly exquisite aspect of conservative 20th century taste. One thing is for sure: The arrangers knew how to seduce their audiences.

Not surprisingly, Bach’s own works feature prominently: Busoni’s imposing version of the famous Toccata and Fugue in D minor (which seem to overpower the pianist until you crank up the volume), Siloti’s dreamy take on the Prelude in B minor (BWV 855), Myra Hess’s popular arrangement of “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” and Rachmaninoff’s three-movement take on the E major violin partita. But wait, there’s more: Liszt’s obscure transcriptions of two dances from Handel’s opera Almira (which must have been really obscure in Liszt’s day), and Rachmaninov’s Corelli Variations, the composer’s final work for solo piano (based on “La folia,” not by Corelli).

At its best, Bax’s playing is almost painfully shy and sweet in the smaller pieces, like the Siloti and Hess transcriptions, and although the music probably reveals more about the transcribers than the transcribees, the power of the past to resonate into the future is clearly driving Bax’s sense of poetry. Recorded at the Maltings in Snape, the sound becomes more beautiful almost in proportion to the volume your system can take, with the Rachmaninoff Suite an almost too delicious audiophile’s delight.

- Laurence Vittes

Khouri plays Chopin EtudesCHOPIN: 12 Etudes, Op. 10; 12 Etudes, Op. 25; Trois Nouvelles Etudes – John Khouri, 1832 Broadwood Grand Piano – Music&Arts CD-1150 56:06 (Distrib. Albany)***:

While I can admire the intense scholarship of Mr. Khouri’s investigations and pedagogical insights into the influences surrounding the Chopin Etudes of 1833, 1836, and 1839, I simply cannot accustom myself to the brittle sound of the 1832 Broadwood instrument used for this recording. The middle and upper range persist in a hollow reverberation that rubs me the wrong way. What I do like is Mr. Khouri’s restoration of Chopin’s original tempo and metronome markings to many of the etudes, making them decidedly faster in such a tradition of lugubrious renderings, as in the E Major, Op. 10, No. 3. Khouri traces Chopin’s debts to many of the lesser contemporaries whom his shining star eclipsed, like Hummel, Field, Clementi, and Dussek, whose works made ample source for imitation and emulation.

Khouri’s technique has no problems embracing both the musical demands and the poetic rhetoric of the Etudes, throwing off flourishes in the midst of dense and often polyphonic textures. Many of Khouri’s ideas in the Etudes remind me of Claudio Arrau’s younger days, before the petrification of slow tempos set in, making Arrau the Otto Klemperer of the keyboard. Khouri has a fine command of the Op. 25, No. 7 (C# Minor) and its knotty, labyrinthine drama, but the staccato sections simply come off tinny to my ear, spoiled as it is by Steinways and Baldwin SD-10s. Khouri justifies his selection of his instrument based on action, tone, and color; but for me, the pianola sound becomes monochromatic and detracts from my concentration on the sensuous effect. The Three New Etudes, whether because of their relative intimacy or Khouri’s softer approach, make the happiest renderings for this reviewer. I think this disc is for acquired tastes and original-instrument buffs. [And perhaps for audiophiles looking for something sounding different...Ed.]

–Gary Lemco

KremerlandKremerland = LISZT (arr.Dreznin): Concerto quasi fantasia “After Reading Dante”/CHIZNIK: Fantasy Variations on a Theme of Mozart/VUSTIN: Tango Homage a Gidon/KANCHELI: Rag-Gidon-Time/BAKSHI: The Unanswered Call/PELECIS: Meeting With a Friend/DUNEYEVSKY: Circus Fantasy – Gidon Kremer, violin and conducting Kremerata Baltica – DGG B00003392-02 (Distrib. Universal Music) 79:55****:

Has it really been thirty years since conductor Herbert von Karajan pronounced Gidon Kremer (b. 1947) “the greatest violinist in the world” after their collaboration on the Brahms Violin Concerto? In honor of Kremer’s fiftieth birthday, 1997, “as a gift to myself,” he organized his own chamber orchestra, Kremerata Baltica, a hand-picked ensemble of 27 musicians from Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, with whom he could serve as artistic director and share his diverse, musical interests. This album, inscribed 1999-2001, represents the New Wave of Russian cross-over classicism, with its heavy leanings toward American jazz: a fusion of Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson, Alex North, Keith Jarrett, and Chick Corea with the procedures gleaned from Bach, Beethoven, Schoenberg, and Paganini.

The album opens with the first of the two “classical” offerings, Sergei Dreznin’s transcription of Liszt’s “other” sonata, the so-called Dante Sonata, as concertante piece for violin, cello (Marta Sudraba), and string orchestra. Dreznin (b. 1955) synthesizes a variety of musical styles into his transcription, so that Liszt’s originally dark and passionate harmonies blend into euphony or screech in the manner of demented banshees. Liszt himself arranged countless scores by other composers to suit his own pianistic gifts, even going so far as to render “reminiscences” or abbreviated forms of complete operas and symphonies. Here, Dreznin displays his cosmopolitanism, likening Liszt to Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night and to the moody evocations of Duke Ellignton.

The other concession to Classicism is by Leonard Chizhik (b. 1947), whose Fantasy Variations on a Theme by Mozart for Piano, Strings, and Percussion takes Mozart’s A Major Sonata, K. 331 on a whirlwind tour that includes several jazz styles; Bill Evans and Count Basie are never far away. Composer Chizhik himself is on keyboard, with Kremer on violin, Andrei Pushkarev on percussion, and Danelius Rubinas on the double bass. They realize or jam their way thru nine variations and two extended cadenzas that bask in breezy riffs or syncopated serialism, a patois of learned techniques and improvisatory virtuosity. The tone of the piece transforms to mood music, movie music, classical salon, and New Orleans hot. As an exercise in “crossover” dynamics, this piece is in a class by itself.

For the remainder of the selections, this reviewer tends to harbor lukewarm feelings. Only George Pelecis (b. 1947) has an ear-grabber, with his slick Meeting With a Friend, a kind of homage to a section of Moussorgsky, but infused with romantic gestures and bravura part-writing for Kremer’s breezy and wayward violin. Slides, harmonics, double-stops, quick alternation of pizzicato and arco passages, each demanding technique is casual wear for Kremer. The Vustin and Kancheli tango and rag, respectively, lack the sensuality of the traditional tango (or even Piazzolla) and any melodic definition for the latter, Tblisi-born Kancheli (b. 1935) being content to deconstruct a rag via Webern. Alexander Baksi (b. 1952) wants to evoke Charles Ives with The Unanswered Call, but I hear it as The Lackluster Allusion. Dunayevsky (1900-1955) composed operetta and film scores in abundance, and Sergei Dreznin takes some tunes from the film Circus for the Kremerata Baltica to play with, a mild form of Shostakovich or Stravinsky.

Curiously, few or none of these pieces sounds Russian. Kremerland is a cosmopolitan country, with excursions mainly to the United States and its own home-grown music, jazz, whether by Gershwin or by Monk. The composers here represented, having lived during, through and beyond the Soviet regime, express their freedom and their eclectic voices, all in brilliant realizations by a group whose virtuosity resonates their commitment to experiment and innovation.

- Gary Lemco

Kuerti plays Beethoven Sonatas 28 & 29BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonata No. 28 in A Major, Op. 101; Piano Sonata No. 29 in B-flat Major, Op. 106 ,“Hammerklavier” – Anton Kuerti, piano -Analekta FL 2 3187 71:47****:

Recorded in June 2003, these introspective readings of two of Beethoven&Mac226;s late-period sonatas were issued as part of the integral set of complete sonatas on Analekta. Anton Kuerti, a pupil of both Rudolf Serkin and Mieczyslaw Horszowski, brings a strong Viennese tradition to his survey of Beethoven&Mac226;s experiments in keyboard sonority and liquid, mercurial structures. The A Major Sonata and the Hammerklavier receive extremely un-aggressive treatment; Kuerti eschews any percussive notions of these works and plays them for their semi-improvisational character. More to Kuerti’s taste is his insistent clarity in Beethoven’s fugal writing, as in the second movement of the A Major and in the gigantic fugue of the Op. 106. Kuerti’s impulse is entirely lyrical: whatever the nature of staccato and sforzato passagework he engages, it is modified to emerge plastically and melodically. Kuerti’s Beethoven is a visionary and dreamer, not an earth-shaker. This is not to say that Kuerti elides the harmonic daring and dissonances, the forward-looking audacity of the late Beethoven, but he is consistently attentive to Beethoven’s compression of extreme emotions into a unified arch. Digital mastery tied to a searching intellect defines the Kuerti experience, a tonic to the bravura virtuosos who play Beethoven only in their own image.

–Gary Lemco

Brahms Klavierstuecke - VladarBRAHMS: Klavierstuecke, Op. 116, Op. 117, Op. 118, Op. 119 – Stefan Vladar, piano – Harmonia Mundi HMC 901844 74:28****:

Alternately labeled autumnal&Mac226; and “old bachelor music,” the late music of Johannes Brahms for solo piano (1892-1893) compresses many of the composer’s classical models into powerful yet introspective, ternary forms, like the intermezzo and capriccio. Brahms was wont to call many of the works fantasy-pieces in the manner of his old mentor Schumann. But some of the more aggressive entries among the sets twenty pieces, the Ballade in G Minor and the Rhapsody in E-flat, escape the generally melancholy mood and assert a passionate spirit not quite ready for existential resignation. Some of the interior harmonies already foretell developments that Debussy would later refine.

Stefan Vladar (b. 1965), an Austrian talent who has demonstrated his prowess in the music of Mozart and Schubert, now joins a pantheon of Brahms devotees that includes Gieseking, Fischer, Rubinstein, and Katchen, and Kempff as its chief exponents. The specific instrument receives no credit, but its plangent sonority makes itself beautifully felt in the F Minor Intermezzo, Op. 118, No. 4, with its lilting and suspended harmonies. The application of perpetual retards, as though each bar were itself a farewell, works admirably in the A Major, Op. 118, No. 2 and the explosively lachrymose Op. 118, No. 6. The B Minor, Op. 119, No. 1 under Vladar has something of Glenn Gould&Mac226;s influence. Its diaphanous, tentative starkness could have influenced Debussy’s Footsteps in the Snow. The skittish C Major Intermezzo and the concluding, heroic E-flat Rhapsody, the valedictory tributes to the Brahms keyboard oeuvre, each contributes to the Brahms alter-ego, that tight-lipped, perseverant humor that seems close to the Hemingway Code.

–Gary Lemco

Peruvian Honeymoon - Rangell, pianoANDREW RANGELL: Peruvian Honeymoon – Andrew Rangell, piano – Bride 9154 (73 mins.)****:

Much like his recent Schubert B-flat recording (also for Bridge), Andrew Rangell has produced a unique pianistic gem which could only come from a deep personal involvement with both the music and the piano. His many recordings for Dorian were always provocative in a sort of gentle Glenn Gould way, and this newest for his new label, Bridge (Dorian having recently announced the apparent sinking of its ship), is a good sign that his valuable recordings will continue.

The program is both varied and entertaining, mixing waltzes of Chopin (and one polonaise) with Mozart’s K. 330 sonata, Haydn’s Hob. 49 sonata (in a particularly riveting performance), Christian’s Wolff’s engaging Peruvian Honeymoon (based in an ingenious manner on a Beatles’ tune), Norwegian modernist Fartein Valen’s obscure Variations, and Stravinsky’s morose Tango.

The multitalented Mr. Rangell’s pen and ink illustrations (a charming example of which, showing the artist walking his toy piano, is included in the booklet notes), will embellish a new publication of Bruce Adolphe’s Piano Puzzlers (as heard on National Public Radio). In Paris, his first children’s book, Sammy Snake’s Lucky Day, will soon be published.

The recordings were made in 1999, at Sonic Temple in Roslindale, Mass., and in 1998 (the Valen, in Williams Hall at the New England Conservatory of Music). The sound is a little close for my taste (the Valen has more space around it), but does reveal Rangell’s thinking to an extraordinary degree, and takes volume very well. The pianist’s booklet notes are absorbing in their own right, and includes Georges Clemenceau’s great quote about the tango, “this dance, with a sad face and a merry derriere.”

- Laurence Vittes

From Time of RiemenschneiderFROM THE TIME OF TILMAN RIEMENSCHNEIDER: Il Curioso, Hedos Ensemble / Bernhard Böhm – Naxos 8.557138 (60 mins.):

Based on the pictures in the booklet, both Il Curioso and Hedos look just ensembles you’d like to join if you had the musical ability and a hairdresser lost in the 1960s. In addition, Hedos made one of my all-time favorite CDs, called Renaissance Love Songs (still available on CPO 999294-2). So it stands to reason that the new CD they and Curios have made for Naxos, comprising music from the late Gothic Period when the great sculptor Tilman Riemenschneider was sculpting, is going to be fun. And it is, in a typically dour, late Gothic sort of way, for not only do you get the usual assortment of dances, tavern songs, a song about going off to war, religious songs of suffering and songs of love, including the inevitable Innsbruck, ich muss dich lassen by Heinrich Isaac (lucky for the record industry he doesn’t collect royalties anymore), you get original instruments, a few of which sound delightfully like tin pennywhistles, enthusiastic performers and excellent recorded sound. Riemenschneider would have been pleased.

If you’re not sure who Tilman Riemenschneider (c.1460-1531) was, he is regarded as one of the leading Germany sculptors of the Late Gothic period. The music on this recording, played on copies of original instruments of the period, is largely taken from German song book collections of works current in the late 15th century.

- Laurence Vittes

Schubert Trout QuintetSCHUBERT: Trout Quintet, D. 667; Trockne Blumen Variations, D. 802; Litanei auf das Fest aller Seelen, D. 343 – Frank Braley, piano; Renaud Capucon, violin; Gerard Causse, viola; Gautier Capucon, cello; Alois Posch, double-bass – Virgin Classics 7243 5 45563 2 58:48****:

Except for violist Gerard Causse, I was relatively unfamiliar with the musicians who collaborate for these breezy and facile renditions of Schubert recorded mid-December 2002 in warm recorded sound. Whether their interpretation is particularly Gallic remains rather a moot point, given the seamless pleasure they take in Schubert&Mac226;s thoroughly refreshed sense of melodic invention and rhythmic verve. The Andante movement may well steal the show as a moment of intimate, suave ensemble. The 1824 Faded Flowers Variations are a commission for flute and piano, here arranged for Renaud Capucon’s ingratiating talents. Each of the seven variations on the meditative song from Die schoene Muellerin outdoes the last for poise and beauty, although the variations in E Major and C# Minor communicate that special espressivity we call Schubert’s own. The 1814 song on the Feast of All Souls Day is taken from a poem by Johann Georg Jacobi, a poignant, disarmingly simple setting rife with the childlike faith Schubert possessed even in his darker moments on earth.

–Gary Lemco


Simpson: Sym. No. 11 ROBERT SIMPSON: Symphony #11; Variations on a Theme by Nielsen/ Matthew Taylor, Conductor /City of London Sinfonia/ Hyperion CDA 67500 *****:

This symphony, composed in 1990, Robert Simpson’s last, represents the distillation of the music of a major 20th century symphonist.

The 11 symphonies of Simpson have been likened to those of Bruckner,Nielsen and Beethoven. These were Simpson’s symphonic inspirations. Simpson’s symphonic canon contains identfiable characteristics of these composers. The lean spare orchestration giving rise to a serene background, rent intermittently by well-springs of white-hot energy characteristic of Nielsen’s music is found within Simpson’s music as well. The exuberance and inimitable muscularity special to Beethoven is present in good measure. The writing for brass chorale is distinctly Brucknerian.

The 11th Symphony is in two movements:Andante and Allegro Vivace.The pervasive mood of the Andante is serenity. There are stunning shifts of orchestral color p and pp culminating in a majestic fff unison C major climax which then gradually ebbs away as a coda in wisps of sound. The Allegro Vivace is fifteen minutes of Simpsonian energy not unlike the final movement of the Mahler Symphony #5. It begins with p wind/brass flutterings which lead to rapid figures within the strings amidst declarations from the brass. It is fifteen minutes of inexorable forward movement with a stunning conclusion.

The 11th Symphony contains passages reminiscent of Simpson’s mighty 4th and 5th symphonies. The tightness of structure and bound energy found within the earlier works is present in the final Simpson symphony. The later work, however, contains a tranquility not previously achieved.

Matthew Taylor has been associated with the music of Robert Simpson since a student at Cambridge University.The 11th Symphony was dedicated to Taylor. He is literally inside this work.The work is performed with great panache and dedication by The City of London Sinfonia. The recording, made in December 2003, at St. Jude on-the Hill, Hampstead, London, is of demonstation quality.

The Nielsen Variations show Simpson at his most bouyant. The jaunty theme from incidental music to the play Ebbe Skamulsen recieves royal treatment from Simpson whose variations are a tour de force. Matthew Taylor leads the COLS in a dazzling performance. Brass playing with and against one another in differing keys;percussion and wind riffs,gossamer string figures-a real stunner for virtuoso orchestra!

Robert Simpson died in 1997. He was a major 20th century composer whose symphonies compare with Sibelius and Nielsen from his time, and yes,with Beethoven.This recording contains essential elements of Simpson’s music.It is most heartily recommended for anyone who wants to experience the music of a great composer whose full recognition is yet to come.

- Ronald Legum

Schubert LiederSCHUBERT: Lieder – Dietrich Henschel,baritone/Helmut Deutsch, piano – Harmonia Mundi HMC 901822 (76 mins.):

As one French magazine commented recently, Harmonia Mundi seems to be making a move to become a premier player in the Lieder sweepstakes. With outstanding new and recent releases by Bernarda Fink (Dvorak), Werner Güra (the Schumanns and Brahms) and Dietrich Henschel (Beethoven, and now Schubert), the label is setting and maintaining a magnificent standard.

The title Harmonia Mundi have given to this CD, An den Mond: Chants Nocturnes, reflects its exploration of death, wandering and night. Like his previous Beethoven recital, Henschel finds a midway point between the self-conscious intellectualism of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and the heady lyricism of Gérard Souzay. He doesn’t always seem to focus on the song as intensely as he might, but he gives himself so freely to each song’s emotion that it is easy to be swept up into the glory of it all and burst out into song yourself.

Besides, this recital has several of my all time favorite Schubert songs including the sweet “Im Freien” (In the Open Air), the exhilarating “Der Schiffer” (The Boatman), and the deeply sad “Auf dem Wasser zu singen” (To be Sung on the Water), with the brave consolation of “Auf der Bruck” (At the Bruck, a viewpoint on a hill above Göttingen). And although the themes might seem to be on the introspective side, and some are downright depressing (including two about grave diggers), there is tremendous variety here which will make it as great an introduction for the newcomer to Schubert songs as it will for aficionados of either the composer or Dietrich Henschel.

Dry liner notes by Walter Rösel, and rich if impersonal sound captured in the Teldex Studio in Berlin.

- Laurence Vittes

 




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