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CLASSICAL CDs , Pt. 1 of 2 - April 2002

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Fields of Feldman to start..

Feldman: Violin and String Quartet. OgreOgress Productions (www.ogreogress.home-page.org ) -The Rangzen Quartet and Christina Fong, violin - UPC 643157069027:

Feldman: Palais de Mari and Piano - Ronnie Lynn Patterson, piano L'empreinte digitale (Harmonia Mundi) ED 13137:

There must be something wrong with my brain. Whenever it listens to music, it cannot multi-task; for example, reading a Borges story with Beethoven playing is beyond it. Either the book or the composition receives the short end of my attention span. Thankfully, Morton Feldman has changed that. His music is the perfect companion to "The Garden of Forking Paths" or some other abstruse tale. At first, his Violin and String Quartet seems to consist only of two notes, played in lugubrious succession, over and over. Later on in this two hour piece, it becomes just one note. The soporific effect is undeniable, but there is more to this work than tickles the ear. First, it is ineffably eerie. "Why is he doing this?" you wonder. The ominous and subtle variations are unnerving, possibly because they enkindle a vague sense of dread. But it is the dread of what might happen instead of what actually does, which is --nothing. It is impossible to shoehorn the music into an emotional landscape. It is too unassertive, too detached. It has no program nor even one complex idea to convey. It exists in such a semi-meditative state, you can enter or exit at any point without feeling you've missed anything. But you may. The last ten minutes are indeed different than the first. Fong's violin gradually assumes more control over the quartet, leading it into imitation, sparking its tempo, and supplying high-pitched notes in dissonant tutti chords. The two piano works on the l'empreinte digitale disc accomplish different goals, but still bear Feldman's mark. Again, the music is played adagio with very slight dynamic change. The unpredictable leaps from low to high register, the slow decay rate, the lack of melody, all demonstrate Feldman's ironic boast that "as a piece gets longer, there has to be less material." Hearing Ronnie Lynn Patterson play this piece is like sipping Chinese Pu-Erh tea for the first time. The fermented flavor is a bit bizarre, but you get accustomed to it. Sometimes a note sounds seventeen times, concluded by a gentle two-note chord. While nine years separate the two piano pieces, they differ in style, but only slightly. For example, there are leisurely arpeggios in Palais de Mari, rather than the apparent random notes of Piano. So calming are these pieces that they are ideal to make love to.

In one of Feldman's notable essays, he says his music should reside in a state of "extreme quietude," a "beauty without biography." Not only have I've never heard anything like it, I'm surprised it's so appealing.

--Peter Bates

BRITTEN: Cello Suites - Truls Mørk, Cello. Virgin Classics 5 45399 2 3:

There are some musical compositions that take you on a ride-thrilling, confusing, challenging-the way John Corigliano's Oboe Concerto does. Britten's three Cello Suites take you on a journey. With Truls Mørk as the driver, you experience rough landscapes and bustling cities. Britten writes with such variety of expression for this instrument. Two of the works have nine movements each. This is true late night music, fireplace music, music to wrestle demons by. Suite No. 3's Moto perpetuo may sound like a swarm of bees to the annotator, but to me, it's that same old 20th century angst snapping at our heels. There's a march in Suite No. 1 that has some nasty parodic moments and a profound passacaglia that speaks of agitation, premonition, and resignation in a manner reminiscent of Shostakovich's String Quartet No. 15. There is humor in the abrupt mood shifts of Suite No. 2's Ciaccona and in each suite a fugue occurs with great rhythmic and thematic complexity. Mørk has matured impressively in the past few years. With this recording his technique approaches Rostropovich's in interpretive powers, although not quite up to the master's quirky expressive style. Particularly in Suite No. 2, Mørk's pianissimo is superb and delicate. He captures Britten's playful as well as tragic side. Hearing these splendidly performed works, I understand why this disc won that Grammy; still I can't stop regretting that Britten lived to complete only half of these sublime pieces.

--Peter Bates

Here's an obscure but enjoyable opera and four other vocal music CDs...

MALIPIERO: I Capricci di Callot (complete opera) --Martina Winter, sop/Gro Bente Kjellevold, mezzo/Markus Müller, tenor/Bernd Valentin, bar/Burkhard Ulrich, tenor/Peter Marschik, cond/Kiel Philharmonic Orchestra--CPO 999830 (2 Cds):

Gian Francesco Malipiero (1182-1973) is largely forgotten now, but he was an important figure in Italian musical life during the first part of the last century. He taught in Rome and Parma but spent most of his life in his hillside retreat in Asolo, where he prepared editions of Monteverdi and Vivaldi and wrote voluminously in many genres. His work was uneven, but at its best it was strikingly original and inventive. He had a taste for the grotesque, as in this comic opera derived from E.T.A. Hoffmann's novella Prinzessin Brambilla, which is based on the 1620 caricatures of commedia del arte figures by the French etcher Jacques Callot.

It tells the story of the transformation of a poor seamstress and a seedy actor into the prince and princess of their dreams, with lots of fanciful spectacle along the way. The vocal lines are reminiscent of the late Puccini of Turandot, though less melodic, but the orchestral music--which dominates the proceedings--is distinctive in its use of discord and its imaginative variety. The singers here are excellent, especially the opulent mezzo Gro Bente Kjellvold, the clear-voiced soprano Martina Winter, and the expressive tenor Burkhard Ulrich. Marschik and his Kiel forces keep it moving briskly and skillfully. Extensive (if wordy) notes, texts, and good sound. I doubt that this oddball work will find much of a place in the repertory, but it's interesting and enjoyable.

--Alex Morin

TAVENER: The Hidden Face; Apokatástasis; Nipson; TAVERNER: Sanctus & Benedictus from Missa Gloria tibi Trinatas; WARD: In Nomine I & II; Picforth: In Nomine; Purcell: An Evening Hymn (arr Standage)--Fretwork/Michael Chance, countertenor--Harmonia Mundi 907285:

John Tavener writes music very much in the spirit of his Tudor and Jacobean predecessors--slow-paced, deeply religious, filled with vocal melismas, and a far cry from most contemporary works. Here three of his pieces written in the late 1990s are interspersed with music by John Taverner, John Ward, Picforth (I can't find his first name anywhere), and Purcell. Fretwork is a consort of viols specializing in early music; they're well-known and well-regarded, but to my ears they sound dreary, although that's probably more the fault of the music than the playing. Michael Chance is among the best male altos active today, and he's in excellent voice here, with an almost instrumental quality in the purity and lack of inflection of his notes. I'm somewhat turned off by the unremitting religiosity of this music and find Tavener's meandering vocal lines in his two longer works ("The Hidden Face" and "Nipson") tedious. But if you let yourself be absorbed into this distinctive world of quiet sound, you may very well find it enchanting.

--Alex Morin

Words of the Angel - Messe de Tournai, with 14th century polyphony; MOODY: Words of the Angel--Trio Mediaeval--ECM New Series 1763:

The Messe de Tournai is a collection of polyphonic parts of the Latin Mass found in Tournai Cathedral, written at different times and in different styles and probably gathered for scribal convenience rather than as a conscious effort to create an integrated service. Here they are interspersed, as they would have been at the time, with monophonic Laude sung by a single voice (from a 13th century manuscript in Cortona, Italy), as well as polyphonic motets and sequences from various 14th century English sources, mostly in praise of the Virgin Mary. To this is added Ivan Moody's Words of the Angel, taken from an Eastern Orthodox liturgy and written for these singers in1998, a lament for Mary that's not at all out of place in this context.

All the early music would have been sung only by men because of the church's ban on women's participation in services, but in this performance we hear the lovely voices of Trio Mediaeval, a group founded in Oslo in 1997 by three presumably Norwegian women. They're wonderful, capturing the spiritual essence of the music with their cool clear voices and exquisite blend, singing the texts with good diction and very expressively. You might think this music would be an acquired taste for listeners accustomed to the works of the last three centuries, but you'd be wrong; it's utterly enchanting in its sweet simplicity.

--Alex Morin

CLARA SCHUMANN: Songs--Susan Gritton, sop/Stephan Loges, bar/Eugene Asti, piano--Hyperion 67249:

Clara Schumann's songs don't have the individuality or distinction of her husband Robert's, but they aren't far behind. She was a child prodigy who went on to become one of the virtuoso pianists of her time, and along the way she managed also to write music, teach, edit, bear eight children, and take good care of her troubled husband; quite a woman! The 29 selections here are almost all love songs (on texts by Heine, Rückert, and others) intended as birthday or Christmas gifts for Robert, and they are uniformly tender and charming. It's hard to single any of them out, though I was particularly taken by the two versions of "Sie liebten sich beide" and the delightful "An einem lichten Morgen". Stephan Loges is emerging as one of our foremost lieder specialists, and he's in splendid voice--robust or gentle as needed, with excellent diction and sensitivity to the words. Susan Gritton isn't quite in his class--for one thing, her diction is less precise--but she uses her light voice expressively. The accompaniments aren't as imaginative as Robert's, but they're interesting and effective and played well by the experienced Eugene Asti. Good notes, song texts, and excellent sound. If you enjoy lieder recitals--and probably even if you don't--you'll surely enjoy this release.

--Alex Morin

LISZT:Songs; SCHUMANN: Dichterliebe--Barbara Bonney, sop/Antonio Pappano, piano--Decca 470289:

Barbara Bonney seems to be everywhere these days; this is the third of her discs (it's called "White Dreams") I have reviewed in recent months. Here she appears in lieder, and sings them as well as she does everything else. She has a lovely voice--accurate and brilliant at the top (if sometimes a bit shrill), luscious in the middle range, and solid in the low register. She lacks the intensity of the great lieder specialists (e.g., Lotte Lehmann, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau), but makes up for it by an even flow of very beautiful sounds. The Liszt songs are all wonderful, and it's hard to single any of them out for special praise--perhaps the creamy "Quand je dors" and its German counterpart, "O komm im Traum" might be mentioned. Schumann's Dichterliebe is a set of songs addressed by a man to his beloved and is usually sung by a tenor or baritone, but although the effect is somewhat incongruous, Bonney's rendition is sensitive to the texts and reasonably effective. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf made a wonderful recording of "Ich grolle nicht"in which the entire mood of the song is suddenly changed in the very last lines from waspish anger to anguish; Bonney's version is full of pathos from beginning to end, less vivid but quite lovely, and that's the case for the other songs in the cycle as well. This is a thoroughly enjoyable disc.

--Alex Morin

Here's a pair of thoroughly tuneful CDs of off-the-beaten-track music...

Stephen Perillo's Napoli! and other Orchestral Works: Piano Concerto No. 1, Hungoverture, Antique Suite - St. Petersburg Festival Orchestra/Yuval Waldman - Centaur CRC 2544:

Yes, St. Petersburg, Russia - not Florida. I just saw a bumper strip saying "Real Musicians Have Day Jobs." That's the philosophy of Perillo, who is president of an international tour company. That hasn't prevented him from turning out a sizeable catalog of works in many different forms, of such quality that some have been performed by major symphonies in the U.S. and even broadcast. On the strength of the four works on this CD Perillo takes a light-hearted approach that guarantees accessibility to a wide audience. His music has a sense of fun without cliche or kitschiness. His tone poem Napoli is based on his own melodies written in a Neapolitan style. The three-movement piano concerto runs into polytonal and atonal areas but retains plenty of aural interest. Hangoverture was created for the millennium and the composer decided on avoiding that overused term in favor of something just as appropriate. This tone poem mixes a cocktail of various 20th century music, including Stravinsky, Copland, pop, jazz and movie themes. The Russian players dive into this fun music with gusto. Things have changed a lot musically there since I picked up a Melodiya LP of Rhapsody in Blue during the Soviet Era and found it so awful I couldn't hear the whole thing.

Tribute to Madam - BLISS: Checkmate; BOYCE-LAMBERT: The Prospect Before Us; GAVON GORDON: The Rake's Progress; GEOFFREY TOYE: The Haunted Ballroom - Royal Ballet Sinfonia/Barry Wordsworth - ASV White Line WLS 255 (2 Cds):

"Madam" was Dame Ninette de Valois, who died last year at the age of 102. She was the grande dame of the British ballet world and renowned not only for her choreographic mind but also for her musical knowledge. She worked with many different composers, and these four complete ballets exemplify the results of some of her commissions. The best-known ballet here is probably Checkmate - its dozen movements portraying a chess game. Creating it was a challenge since its composer Bliss knew little about ballet and Madam knew nothing about chess. His tunefully rhythmic work was such a success that Bliss went to compose three more ballets. Lambert's arrangements of the music of Boyce and especially a comedy dance number in the ballet lightened the hearts of Britishers during the early years of the Second World War. The catchy waltz from Toye's Haunted Ballroom became a popular hit of its own on the BBC. The 1934 ballet, based on Edgar Allen Poe, includes parts for a vocal quartet.

- John Sunier

The Allegri String Quartet - SCHUBERT: Quartettsatz In C Minor; HAYDN: Quartet in C "The Bird;" RAVEL:Quartet in F - Naim CD012:

The Allegri String Quartet with Patrick Ireland, viola - BRUCH: String Quintet in A Minor; BRAHMS: Quintet in G Major - Naim CD010:

The Allegri, at nearly 50 years, is Britain's longest-standing string quartet. They have made many recordings and have a world-wide reputation. A Swiss critic called them Aristocrats of the Quartet. Recording in the Jacqueline du Pré Music Building at Oxford College for the first CD, the quartet presents a well-balanced program with three works from the Romantic, Classical and Impressionistic periods. The sprightly treatment of the Haydn quartet kept me awake start to finish - something not guaranteed with some performances of Haydn quartets. And the Ravel is one of the best versions I've heard of this work. Sonics are clean and natural - not too close as with some major label quartet CDs.

The Bruch Quintet is a rarely-heard work that was almost lost to posterity. Its scherzo includes a wild tarantella and the Adagio movement reworks music from earlier Bruch compositions. The Brahms mixes, as does much of his music, a Romantic Schubertian approach with Hungarian/gypsy influences. Both works were recorded with a minimum of takes, and the natural flow of the Allegri's performances show it.

- John Sunier

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