Classical CD Reviews

16 Classical CD Reviews, Pt. 1


Published on May 1, 2005

May 2005- Part 1 of 2  [Part 2]

Mozart for 4 Hands Carmina Burana Mintz plays Brahms Opera arias - Yu Quiang Dai
Ukraine Composers set Francaix ballets Catoire chamber works Sor guitar works
Barber: Capricorn Concerto Henry Cowell works

Mozart for 4 HandsMOZART: The Complete Piano Works for Four Hands; Sonata in C, K. 545 (arr. Grieg); Fantasia in F Minor for Musical Clock, K. 608 (arr. Busoni) – Mischa and Cipa Dichter, piano – Musical Heritage Society 5479317 69:48; 44:04; 61:49 ****:

Mischa and Cipa Dichter appeared some years ago in Atlanta for a joint recital: I recall having been favorably impressed, given Cipa’s slightly more limited bravura skills; and Mischa played a second half of first-rate Liszt, including a mighty version of the Vallee D’Obermann. When a friend asked me about my impressions of the recital at yet another concert, I proffered my praise; whereupon he said the local Journal-Constitution critic had shot the whole Dichter concert down. I replied that “To be both deaf and stupid was for a critic a bad combination,” only to be informed that said critic was standing right behind me! Well, get thee behind me. . .

The three Musical Heritage CDs here present testify to a nexus of musical kinships, not the least being the Dichters’ inheriting the Mozart mantle from their joint teacher, Rosina Lhevinne. Fairly recently, I reviewed this same repertory with Artur Balsam and Nadia Reisenberg, so the glories and infinite charms of Mozart’s sparkling, crystalline writing for four hands is fresh in my mind. The fleet C Major Sonata K. 521 is a case in point, with its elastic lines and several hints of the K. 595 Piano Concerto. The D Major K. 448 Sonata is among the treasures of musical art, rife with high spirits and thrilling runs and vocal fioritura. No less moving is the B-flat Sonata K. 358, with its ornaments from the galant style, its chaste melodic contour in the Adagio (with its own echoes of the Divertimento in D, K. 136).

The C Minor Adagio and Fugue is best known in its string quartet/string orchestra arrangement, K. 546, the piece that taught Tchaikovsky counterpoint. The Dichters keep its dark passion and bustling energy moving in clear lines. For rich, dark passing-dissonances, try the F Minor Fantasia K. 594. The most intriguing selection is the Sonata in C, K. 19d, composed by a nine-year-old boy fascinated with Alberti bass and the constructs of J.C. Bach. Ferruccio Busoni arranged the F Minor Fantasia, K. 608, originally composed for Musical Clockwork or Glass Harmonica, whose harmonic daring and angular serpentine melos make for an audacious ride – almost gothic in its eerie sensibility. The other curio is Grieg’s arrangement of the Sonata in C K. 545 for two pianos, whose independent part Mischa Dichter performs. The added part provides a kind of commentary at cadences and occasional tinkling cascades. It’s pretty, but is it Mozart? A labor of love with affectionate and often challenging ensemble, this set is a winner.

–Gary Lemco

Carmina BuranaCARL ORFF: Carmina Burana – Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra /Sir Simon Rattle, conductor; Rundfunkchor Berlin / Knaben des Staats-und Domchors Berlin/ Sally Matthews, soprano/ Lawrence Brownlace, tenor/ Christian Gerhahaer, baritone – EMI 7243 5 57888 2 5 ****:

Carmina Burana is approaching 70. It is perennially vital, being concerned with the pleasures and uncertainties of life. If as human beings we are but debris tossed on the winds of fortune, then the pleasure of Earth and Body may be our only tangible sources of joy.

The 13th century monks at Benediktbeuren in the Bavarian Alps were as in or out of tune with the meaning of life as any 21st century savant. Sex, wine and food were then as now – for many the only reason for existence. Carmina is mesmerizing, an amalgam of religious chant, pop tune, dance chorus and erotic aria. The full panoply of percussion is brought to bear upon the verses of “Songs of Beuern” together with lean muscular orchestration. Simple, propulsive, repetitive rhythms are abundant. Indeed, the consistent success and popular notoriety of Carmina Burana comes from its wonderful sing, stamp and dance-along melodies. This is the stuff ad agencies dream of.

Sir Simon Rattle is a percussionist, a creator of orchestras and, lately the music director of one of the world’s great ensembles, The Berlin Philharmonic. This new recording weds Rattle’s marvelous sense of rhythm with the unique playing of the Berlin instrument. This live performance does not disappoint. It is well recorded by EMI with mid-row perspective from within the Philharmonie, a notoriously difficult choral music recording venue. The soloists, Sally Matthews, soprano, Lawrence Brownlee, tenor, and Christian Gerhaher, baritone, are fine, providing seamless blending with the excellent Rundfunkchor of Berlin and the glorious playing of the orchestra.

Carl Orff’s timeless journey from Uf dem anger to In taberna to Cours d’amours is carried out with great verve and beauty by Rattle and his forces. When the final O fortuna is completed, the uncertainty and chance of human existence is viscerally understood.

Carmina Burana verges on becoming a pop classic. It is ubiquitous as background to sporting events and advertising material as well as in the concert hall and on the theatre stage. The new EMI recording takes front place among the many releases over decades of this celebrated “hit” music.

– Ronald Legum

Schlomo Mintz plays BrahmsBRAHMS: Violin Sonata No. 1 in G, Op. 78; Violin Sonata No. 2 in A, Op. 100; Violin Sonata No. 3 in D Minor, Op. 108; Viola Sonata No. 1 in F Minor, Op. 120, No. 1; Viola Sonata No. 2 in E-flat, Op. 120, No. 2; Scherzo in C Minor from FAE Sonata – Schlomo Mintz, viola & viola/Itamar Golan, piano – Avie AV2057 75:45; 53:35 (Distrib. ClassiQuest)****:

Some twenty years ago, I auditioned the Brahms Violin Sonata No. 2 in A with Gidon Kremer and Valery Affanassiev on WQXR’s “First Hearing,” a performance lovely in tone but entirely too slow and romanticized for my taste. Perhaps I have mellowed or slowed down myself, but the performances here inscribed by Schlomo Mintz (b. 1957), again played for exquisite beauty and sweetness of tone but very slow and expansive in tempo, seem less idiosyncratic to me. The so-called Regenlied Op. 78 Sonata receives the most stretching of the bar of the three sonatas. Idyllic and melancholy in sentiment, the sonata can bear the occasional, histrionic moments of self-indulgence Mintz accords it.

For the move from lyricism to high drama, we really have to wait for the D Minor Sonata of 1886. Then Mintz cuts loose and allows his pianist Golan some exuberant passion as well. The little bit of sweet dalliance that marks the F-sharp Minor third movement is delicate and suddenly stormy at its D Minor episode. In the last two pages of the final movement, Mintz leans hard into his bowing arm, and the music dazzles with the kind of explosive tempestuousness we have been awaiting for some time. The A Major “Thun” Sonata is thoroughly gracious, just a mite slow, except for those who relish Mintz’s colors, whatever the speed. I still favor Szigeti and Horszowski for sheer magic of ensemble.

Mintz plays an equally compelling viola, and his F Minor Sonata of 1894, originally written for Richard Muehlfeld, the Meiningen Court Orchestra clarinetist, has an autumnal beauty remarkable for its quality of tone and undercurrent of restless agitation in the piano part. The singing line of the Andante con poco Adagio is worth the entire price of admission, and the pursuant Allegro grazioso enjoys a Schubertian ease and simplicity of phrase. The F Major rondo is a spirited gallop in the bravura tradition, with its three clarion Fs ubiquitous in various guises and the shifts of viola registration no impediment to the lively interplay of the two instruments. The perky E-flat Sonata (which I originally heard in the clarinet version with Benny Goodman and Nadia Reisenberg) has the grand leisure of exposition that marks the Mintz violin sonatas. The piano part has some exemplary touches, even a bit of French taste, in the suave syncopations that Mr. Golan likely learned under his mentor Leonard Shure. After an athletic Scherzo in E-flat, the final movement – the composer’s last excursion into his favorite device of theme-and-variations – likewise allows Mr. Golan some free expression in variant 5, just prior to the coda – itself a high-spirited and passionate farewell to the chamber music medium. Recorded late October to early November, 2003 in Teldex Studio, Berlin, these are ripe, resounding recordings, and the incisive Scherzo in C Minor from the eclectic FAE Sonata makes for an audiophile demo in itself.

–Gary Lemco

Yu Qiang Dai in Opra AriasYu Qiang Dai, tenor – Opera Arias – New Symphony Orchestra/José Antonio Molina -EMI Classics 5 57791 2, ****:

A bright new tenorial star has been making his way west, beginning with this debut CD by EMI. Yu Qiang Dai, who lives in Beijing and has taken upon himself the mission of bringing Western opera to China, has already sung Cavaradossi (Tosca) at Covent Garden. I hope this appearance at the Royal Opera House in London is only the beginning of a stellar career for him, assuming he sounds as good in live performances as he does on this magnificent CD.

I commend this young tenor for his near perfect Italianate sound and pronunciation. In this regard, I can hear no difference between Dai and, say, Gigli, although their timbres are dissimilar. Further, his ardent singing, cascading tones, and expressive voice bring much enjoyment to the listener. Dai sings the big roles of Cavaradossi, Calaf, Des Grieux, Rodolfo, and others with the kind of intensity that can break a glass, and yet he still has breath to spare. His high notes seem effortless, his legatos masterly. He brings the aria “Che gelida manina” (La Bohème) to an end with a nuanced and exquisite pianissimo. As Werther, he displays great colors and contrasts. And in “Mamma” (Cavalleria rusticana) his distress is palpable, with an attractive catch in his voice. The sound of this CD is terrific, and the texts are translated into several languages.

-Dalia Geffen

Ukraine Composers set OneUKRAINE COMPOSERS SERIES, Set One = POLSKY: Concerto for Domra and Orchestra; PODGORNY: Overture; MAMONTOV: Concert Polonaise; KLEBANOV: Suite No. 2 for Strings; 4 Preludes & Fugues for Orchestra; TSITSALUK: Elegie for Fr. Horn and Strings; STETSUN: Youth Overture; GAYDENKO: Kursky Karagody; GUBARENKO: Kupalo; Chamber Sym. No. 2; Choreographic Scenes from “Zaporozhtsy” – Kharkov Philharmonic Orchestra of the Ukraine/Vakhtang Jordania – Angelok1 CD7710/7711 (2 discs) (Distr. by Albany Records), 71:09, 71:28 ****:

This special collection introduces music lovers who tend toward the untrodden paths to various Ukrainian composers of the 20th century in authoritative performances by an orchestra of their countrymen. The Kharkov Philharmonic has a history going back to the early 19th century, and this package was produced in commemoration of the city of Kharkov’s 350th Anniversary. One of the strangest-named classical labels (with the superscript 1 at the end), Angelok1 specializes in bringing to CD some of the great music from the area of Russia. Unfortunately, the sonics are often rather harsh and not up to audiophile standards, and this collection is no exception.

However, some of the music is so fascinating and exotic that I for one am willing to listen thru that. After all, all Soviet recordings sounded like this on those Melodiya LPs of yore, and added to it was surface noise and often serious distortion which at least is absent here. One would expect folk instruments or folk themes to be involved in some of these pieces, and that is true of at least two of them. Podgorny’s Domra Concerto features the mandolin-like stringed instrument which is heard in every kind of music in the Ukraine. Only 12 minutes long, it’s a tuneful romp in the style of much Soviet-era classical works which were designed to be appreciated by the masses. Not that there’s anything especially wrong with that. I really like some of it – never mind the teeth-knashing that must have gone on with some of the composers who longed to write more atonal stuff but weren’t allowed. Actually, I think some of these works wouldn’t have passed muster with the Soviet commissars of music.

Gaydenko’s Kursky Karagody teaches folk instruments, theory and history at the Kharkov Institute of Culture, so his work explores folk elements as expected. It opens with an atmospheric scene-setting and some of the folk dance tunes and rhythms are spiced with occasional atonal and percussion exclamations. An accordion is featured in the center section. The French Horn Concerto by Tsitsaluk is a lovely work and seems too short. The Preludes and Fugues of Klebanov seem rather academic, as does Gubarenko’s Chamber Symphony, but his Choreographic Scenes are certainly not chamber music – full of such wild sounds (but still fairly tonal), that I pictured Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are while listening. Sort of a Rimsky-Korsakov on psychedelics.

- John Sunier

Francaix balletsJEAN FRANCAIX: Le roi nu; Les demoiselles de la nuit – Ulster Orchestra/Thierry Fischer – Hyperion CDA67489, 62:49 ****:

Francaix live a long life, passing away only eight years ago. He composed in nearly every genre with great facility and a quality that the notes to this disc accurately call “an amiable unpretentiousness.” That French wit permeates most of his music and Le roi nu is a perfect illustration since the ballet is based on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Emperor’s New Clothes.” One of nine ballets composed by Francaix, the music flows at a mostly continuous pace, with vivid orchestration and showing an influence of Stravinsky here and there. When the king finally dons his imaginary robes, the lush instrumentation falls back to just a few solo instruments – naked orchestration, so to speak.

The Ladies of the Night was another witty but somewhat more moody ballet effort, this one subtitled “cat-ballet in one act.” The scenario concerns a decadent underground society of cats who mirror human life in the city above. One of them falls in love with a human who is lost in the underground and becomes a human to be with him. But she can’t control her wanting to eat birds etc. Sections of romantic music alternate with music of great pathos, and the strings do their best to imitate the meows with glissandi. Francaix peppers his already witty score with brief quotations from other composers, which will necessitate a good musical memory in addition to wit to identify. Cat-and-music-lovers looking for an antidote to “Cats” would enjoy this delightful Francaix pâtisserie. This oh-so-French music is played to the hilt by an oh-so-Irish orchestra in a hall in Belfast. Great sonics – as usual with Hyperion.

- John Sunier

Catoire: Piano Trio, QuartetGEORGY L’VOVICH CATOIRE: Piano Trio in F Minor; Elegy in D Minor for violin and piano; Piano Quartet in A Minor – Room-Music Quartet – Hyperion CDA67512, 55:08 ****:

Another neglected composer brought to collectors’ attention by Hyperion. Catoire does appear in Baker’s Biographical, but only gets seven lines, showing some neglect even there. He was a Russian composer of French descent, born at the start of the U.S. Civil War and died shortly after the Russian Revolution. Even during his life he was on the musical sidelines, but these three selections show that he created some impressive chamber works. He was a champion of Wagner throughout his life but that composer’s influence was modified by a Russian temperament. The works abound in glorious melodies and accent the virtuoso aspects in some thrilling passages. This latter quality is thought to have accelerated the neglect of Catoire’s music, because it was so difficult to play. The Piano Quartet shows a strong influence of Scriabin, especially in the initial movement. There is an involved interplay among the four instruments not often heard in works for piano and string trio. These works are a very welcome discovery and lead one to an interest in the large-scale works from the composer – who stands out for his exceptional originality.

- John Sunier

Sor guitar worksFERNANDO SOR: Les plus belles pages = 14 works for guitar, incl. Fantasie villageoise, Introduction et Theme Varie Op. 20 – David Starobin, guitar – Bridge Records 9166, 52:47 ****:

Versatile classical guitarist Starobin, who is CEO of Bridge Records, presents here for us some of the finest compositions from the composer and performer who held a similar place in promoting the guitar as a serious classical instrument as did Andres Segovia later. Starobin plays a 1923 Herman Hauser guitar which is modeled after an early 19th century Viennese instrument. The two works singled out above are the longest of the 14 – most are two or three minutes length. The Fantasie Villageoise employs what is probably the first use of multiphonics on any instrument. Sor was a real pioneer on his instrument, and his studies and exercises have been the technical and musical starting point for all classical guitarists. His “Studies” are nevertheless lovely pieces just for listening. Berlioz’ works gained attention at the same time as Sor was composing, which could explain Sor’s attention to instrumental color, programatic content, and bell sounds in his Fantasie villageoise. It depicts a whole day in the life of a typical village. Fine guitar sound and superb playing from Starobin.

- John Sunier

BARBER: shorter worksSAMUEL BARBER: Capricorn Concerto; A Hand of Bridge; Mutations from Bach; Intermezzo from Vanessa; Canzonetta for oboe and strings; Fadograph of a Yestern Scene – Stephane Rancourt, oboe (in Canzonetta)/other soloists/Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Marin Alsop – Naxos American Classics 8.559135, 52:28 ****:

In the sixth and last volume in Naxos’ series on the complete orchestral works of Barber, we have some of the shorter works from this American composer who often combined late Romantic style with more modernist tendencies. The three-movement Capricorn Concerto was named after Barber’s home, and he chose for it exactly the same instruments as featured in Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2, and in the final movement pays tribute to Bach with a trumpet fanfare. A Hand of Bridge was commissioned for Menotti’s Spoleto Festival and is a nine-minute opera for four voices with a witty and bitchy libretto by Menotti, Barber’s companion at the time. The Intermezzo from Barber’s second opera Vanessa is a strikingly beautiful short piece on a par with the composer’s popular Adagio for Strings. The closing Fadograph of a Yestern Scene comes from the composer’s sad final years, after the failure of his opera Antony and Cleopatra and his reclusive existence in his NYC apartment. It sounds surprisingly like Debussy. The works receive fine performances from the Scottish forces, led by one of the world’s leading women conductors today. Engineering is also on target, with names such as Tony Faulkner involved.

Henry Cowell: Continuum PortraitHENRY COWELL, A Continuum Portrait – Instrumental, Chamber and Vocal Music 1 = Piano Pieces; Quartet for Flute, Oboe, Cello & Harpsichord; Three Anti-Modernist Songs; Suite for Violin and Piano; Polyphonica for Small Orchestra; Irish Suite for String Piano and Small Orchestra – Continuum (Charyl Seltzer & Joel Sachs, directors) – Naxos American Classics 8.559192, 65:46 ****:

One of the most highly individual men in American music, Cowell – who lived until 1965 – was a piano virtuoso, writer, teacher, lecturer, organizer and composer. His unprecedented experimental attitude resulted in some of the first use of palms, fists and entire arms on the piano keyboard, as well as reaching in to play on the strings directly. He also experimented with extremely advanced compositional techniques, but somehow all of his music is quite accessible to the average listener due to Cowell’s folklore-influenced melodiousness and dedication to his Irish background. He had a deep belief in the unity of world musical cultures and later in his career thru a series of radio programs and recordings concentrated on increasing public appreciation of the diversity of world music – which is presently finally achieving some attention.

The last of the four Piano Pieces is titled Tiger and is probably the most atonal of the composer’s works – filled with his tone clusters played with fists and arms. Similar is the Irish Suite, which evidently refers in “String Piano” to the performer going in and playing directly on the strings – as in the first of the three movements, The Banshee. Eerie sounds of the Banshee – an Irish family ghost – are produced by scraping along the windings of a bass string with the fingernail. The Quartet shows a more conservative style in which Cowell wrote later in his life, but still displays his fresh approach to music. There are historic recordings available of Cowell performing his own pieces, but it is gratifying to hear them in up to date sonics in the committed performances by this enthusiastic group of young performers.

- John Sunier

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