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Pt. 1 of 3 • September 2003


Hy Hy Hy Hy Hy Hy Hy Hy - The New Jungle Book Of The Baroque: Ensemble Villancico conducted by Peter Pontvik – Caprice CAP 21688 (54 mins.):

Following their successful first CD, A la xácara!, Ensemble Villancico returns with a new, rich selection of music from colonial Latin America. It is a journey in time and space, from 1590 to 1802, covering Mexico to Uruguay, containing a newly discovered piece in the Indian language, Quechua and also festive Afro-inspired Christmas music, beautiful Mexican vocal polyphony, and an excerpt from Latin America’s first opera, La púrpura de la rosa. Here is some original world music in intoxicating performances on period instruments.

The music derives from Latin America’s powerful cathedrals and Jesuit missionary stations as well as from secular sources. A recurring theme is the celebration of Christmas which, for hundreds of years, has inspired the continent’s music-makers and performers to joyful music and lively dances. Ensemble Villancico’s clear, homogeneous sound and passionate, rhythmic interpretations have won them hearts worldwide. In October 2001, the Ensemble Villancico was awarded the Ivan Lukacíc prize at the music festival in Varazdin, Croatia.

The twelve members of Ensemble Villancico not only define hipness with their youth and Scandinavian background, they play with a wonderful sense of energy and freedom that communicates directly the spirit of the music. The vocal beauty and the instrumental inventory, including egg shakers, caxixi, darbuka and a wonderful Bolivian pifano, is captured with seductive snap and crackle in the slightly dry acoustic of the Swedish Broadcasting Corporation’s Studio 3 in Stockholm.

The CD gets its title from Hy, hy, hy, que de riza morremo, part of a Christmas potpourri in which the theme and language (Negro-Portuguese) is directly taken from the anticipation of the Afro-American world of meeting the Holy Child and his parents. My favorite track is a hypnotic instrumental riff for vihuela, recorder and gamba by Lucas Ruiz de Ribayaz. Peter Pontvik’s liner notes are thorough and absorbing. Strongly recommended. Purchase here

- Laurence Vittes

LIGETI: Hommage a Gyorgy Ligeti: Complete Piano and harpsichord works, Vol. 1. Haase, Piazzini - Tacet 129:

This may not be the Ligeti you’ve grown to love or hate. Instead of protean fits of invention, most of these keyboard works are surprisingly structured, using musical devices such as traditional thematic progressions and counterpoint. There are even Bachian musical study pieces like the Musica Ricarcata. (Director Stanley Kubrick used the atmospheric No. 2 in his last film, Eyes Wide Shut.) Rather than sport the perverse humor of chamber works like Clocks and Clouds, the pieces on these two discs are sprightly and playful, as in Prelude No. 13 (L’Éscalier du diable).

Also, since these are his “complete” keyboard works, this is the first collection that spans sixty years. This means it includes two callow works from World War II, March and Polyphonic Etude, as well as the Bartok-inspired Invention from 1947. However, there is no mistaking it—these pieces are sheer Ligeti. Listen to the harpsichord’s patter in Continuum from “Three Pieces for Cembalo.” The composer clearly wants to squash the notion of the harpsichord’s short decay rate. The middle piece is a traditional passacaglia (but “Hungarian”), the final a frenetic discourse using rock & roll rhythms.

There’s no predicting his musical orbit. Yet within each piece the pattern is established quite early. He sets his own rules and follows them assiduously. Most delightful are his three books of Etudes, written between 1985 and 2001. Pianist Erika Haase interprets their impish cross rhythms and winding themes with grace, subtlety, and sardonic creativity. Her interpretation of the erratic No. 2 (“Cordes Vites”), with its hypnotic trailing off, is marvelous. The rumbling No. 14 (Columna Infinita), followed by the elegiac and almost sentimental No. 15 (Pour Irina) are feats of staggering technique and control. I hesitate to use the term, but nearly all of these pieces showcase Ligeti at his most accessible. You probably couldn’t come up with a better introduction. Purchase here

--Peter Bates


VIVALDI: The Four Seasons. With a sampler CD of music by Bach, Handel, Marenzio, Monteverdi, Rossini, Alessandro Scarlatti, Domenico Scarlatti and Vivaldi – Concerto Italiano with various singers and instrumental soloists conducted by Rinaldo Alessandrini – Opus 111 OP30363 (2 CDs, 2-for-the-price-of-1, 103 mins.):

This unparalleled bargain from Opus 111 pairs one of the greatest recordings ever of Vivaldi’s perennial favorite Four Seasons with a sampler CD taken not only from existing performances by Rinaldo Alessandrini’s period-instrument Concerto Italiano but also from previously unreleased tracks by Alessandro Scarlatti, Bach and Vivaldi.

In the Seasons, each of the four soloists—Stefania Azzaro (who died less than six months after making the recording and to whom the performance is dedicated), Mauro Lopes Ferreira, Antonio de Secondi and Francesca Vicari—brings a different personality to their concerto, ranging from vividly emotional to quietly reflective. The playing of the 14-member Concerto is of the highest caliber throughout, at once stunningly virtuosic and yet perfectly attuned to the ensemble, with conductor Rinaldo Alessandrini providing a thoughtful, deeply poetic context that allows the soloists to explore the music that lies behind the four sonnets that were their inspiration. Though there is powerful character to this music making, it is not the kind of pervasive, “take no prisoners” attitude you sometimes get from more doctrinaire period-instrument groups like Concerto Armonico.

Laurence Heym’s sound, recorded in the Sala Academica del Pontificio Istituto di Musica Sacra in Rome, is of audiophile quality: colorful, quick and sculptural. Alessandrini’s notes, in the form of a dialogue about the historical antecedents of his approach and about the music itself, may explain the compelling nature of his performances, but they are confusing.

The inclusion of a free second CD, intended to acquaint listeners aware with the range of Alessandrini’s recordings, is not only extremely generous, it is smart marketing. Listen to Licida’s exquisite aria, Mentre dormi, Amor fomenti, from Vivaldi’s opera L’Olimpiade, and see if you can resist going out and buying as many of Concerto Italiano’s recordings as you can afford. Purchase here

- Laurence Vittes

HAYDN: Cello Concertos 1-3 – Gautier Capuçon with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra conducted by Daniel Harding – Virgin Classics 5455602 (66 mins.):

Here’s an exhilarating disc of Haydn’s three cello concertos (real and attributed) by two leading young whippersnappers in Virgin Classics’ stable. Gautier Capuçon, born in 1981 in Chambéry, has, since he began playing the cello at the age of 5, won a number of first prizes at cello competitions. Daniel Harding has caused controversy with death-defying recordings of Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Brahms’s four symphonies. The Berlin-based Mahler Chamber Orchestra, of which Harding will become music director later this year, was founded in 1997, has an average age is only 29, and plays a wide-ranging repertoire.

The performances are deft and glorious, closer to the Italianate curlicues of Boccherini than the stodginess of the old-style French tradition of Fournier and Tortelier. Capuçon plays a lot like Cary Grant would have had he been in a cellist in Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief: urbane and smoothly elegant. He doesn’t have the edgy attitude of Mstislav Rostropovich in the C Major concerto (nor the wonderful, otherworldly cadenzas by Benjamin Britten) nor the supreme polish of Maurice Gendron (conducted by Casals) or Janos Starker (with Giulini) in the D Major. And his cadenzas are a little long for all their considerable invention. Still, these are considerable achievements and can be highly recommended to all Haydn lovers and cellists.

The sound in Vienna’s Jugendstil Theater is as sensitive and lovely as the performances, but while it lacks serious weight at least you don’t to worry about bothering the neighbors if you turn up the volume. Marc Vignal’s extensive liner notes cover the territory very well but don’t make for particularly interesting reading. Worse, the booklet says nothing about any of the young superstars that make this CD go. Purchase here

- Laurence Vittes

M. DE ST. COLOMBE LE FILS/MARIN MARAIS: Pièces de Viole - Jordi Savall, Piarre Hantaï et al. - AliaVox AV9829 A/V:

Most listeners first heard of Monsieur de Sainte Colombe le Père either from the film Tous les Matin du Monde or from Jordi Savall’s recordings. (They certainly didn’t from reading Baker’s Biographical Dictionary. He is absent from that august work.) He was a master of the viol and pioneered the melancholic late 17th century style of playing. While very little is known of Sainte Colombe le Père (like his birth year), even less is known of Sainte Colombe le Fils (such as his death year). This new boxed set by Jordi Savall’s recording company includes two CDs of the later composer’s works for solo viol. Like Bach’s celebrated cello suites, to which Savall-- a bit grandly-- compares them, these Pièces de Viole are six virtuosic, complex, entertaining, and dance-themed works. Sainte Colombe le Fils had subsumed his father’s doleful style nearly completely. In their harmonic forays, they are also similar to Purcell’s Fantasias for the Viols. While they have neither the depth of Bach’s works nor the invention of Purcell’s, they are eminently likeable, particularly played with Savall’s depth of feeling. It is a shame they are not more well known.

Disc Three is a wondrous rendition of Marin Marais’ Pièces de Viole du Second Livre (1701), joined by Pierre Hantaï (clavichord) and other musicians. These sprightly and lachrymose works should keep any post-dinner crowd entertained as they sip tea with shortbread. The two longest works, Tombeau pour Monsieur de Ste Colombe and Tombeau pour Monsieur de Lully, are as different from one another as the two men were. In Tombeau pour Monsieur de Ste Colombe, Marais deftly creates a musical photograph of his irascible and unpredictable master. Hear those magnificent sforzandos toward the end. In the later work, Marais constructs a 17th century operatic tribute to this master of French opera: painful descents on the viol, breathtaking flights on the clavichord, sensuosity flowing slowly like cool honey and surprise! More sforzandos at the end! Purchase here

--Peter Bates


FRANÇOIS DEVIENNE: Quartets Op. 73/1-3 for bassoon and strings. Duos concertants Op. 3/2 & 5 for bassoon and cello – Laurent Lefèvre, bassoon; Gordon Nikolitch, violin; Geneviève Strosser, viola; Jean-Marie Trotereau, cello – Harmonia Mundi France HMN 911788 (67 mins.):

The bassoon is many audiophile’s secret passions. Passions because the funny-looking instrument has a distinctive sound that, in its grain and timbre, parallels the taste of fine wines, providing a touchstone for whether great orchestral recordings attain legendary status. Secret because there are relatively few recordings of the bassoon as a solo instrument, either with orchestra or in a chamber music setting. All of which makes this superlative new release in Harmonia Mundi’s Les nouveaux musicians, celebrating stars of the future, series most welcome.

François Devienne was a leading Parisian virtuoso of his day on both the flute and the bassoon, and a prolific composer whose music sounds like a mix of early Beethoven at his most ingratiating and late Mozart at his most mellifluous. The music here is unfailingly charming, but not without occasional superb, light dramatic touches that make you wonder whether Devienne could have been the mysterious composers of the Symphonie Concertante for four winds attributed to Mozart. The first quartet of Op. 73 which opens in the disc, is a case in point: After a luxurious introduction by the three strings, the bassoon enters quietly with a wonderful upwards run, and proceeds to take over the proceedings in a most gracious way, trilling as it goes.

The performances by the young virtuoso Lefèvre—he was appointed principal bassoon of the Opéra National de Paris at the age of 22—are deft, seductive and thrilling. The strings play their parts with equal ease and handsome timbre, and Michel Pierre, working in the Église Notre-Dame du Bon Secours in Paris, has produced a recording of perfect beauty, ambient space and instrumental balance. Andreas Friesenhagen’s liner notes are brief and to the point. Purchase here

- Laurence Vittes

ANDRE PREVIN: Tango Song And Dance; GERSHWIN: Porgy And Bess sel.; FAURE: Violin Sonata No. 1; BRAHMS: Hungarian Dances 1,6, 7; KREISLER: Schon Rosmarin, Caprice viennois, Liebesteid - Anne Sophie Mutter, violin/Andre Previn & Lambert Orkis, piano - DGG B0000058-02:

Must confess I’m a pushover for anything instrumental connected with the tango, and with two such top-flight names as Mutter and Previn this is a can’t-miss collection of violin-piano works. The quarter-hour-long three-movement Previn work is light in nature, with much more complex rhythms in the finale than the danceable 4/4 tango beat. Previn claims he could use self-conscious tango cliches in the opening movement because in l997 (when he wrote the work) the tango revival craze hadn’t yet started. Mutter herself observes that the Faure sonata “may seem the odd one out.” Agreed, but it’s full of lovely melody and sensitively played. Sonics are excellent, without the occasionally raspy violin sound her recent Beethoven sonatas sometimes displayed. Nice alternative-to-jewel box packaging with photos of Mutter which show her taking a break from her standard strapless outfit. Purchase here

- John Sunier

TCHAIKOVSKY: Piano Concerto No. 1 in B Flat minor; MENDELSSOHN: Piano Concerto No. 1 in G Minor - Lang Lang, piano/Chicago Symphony/Daniel Barenboim - DGG B00000666-02:
[See Van Cliburn version in this month’s xrcd Section.]

Ho hum, yet another Tchaikovsky First Concerto - this came in simultaneously with Van Cliburn’s classic version on xrcd plus Pentatone’s new SACD effort. So it’s the battle of the B Flats. The winner - at least musically? Even up against the probable fidelity advantages of the two audiophile formats - this one! This is truly a fiery Tchaikovsky First, which reminded me of the brilliant Emil Gilels version of years ago. The DGG CD has a wider and deeper soundstage than the Living Stereo JVC, but in the case of the piano itself, too wide. Another attack of the 50-foot-wide piano. Van Cliburn’s Steinway is dead center and all the notes come from roughly the same spot, as they would unless you had your head in the piano’s guts. (Which is where they often place the mikes - no wonder we have 50-ft. pianos!) Lang Lang turns in a rather show-offey interpretation compared to the other two, but then isn’t this one of the most show-offey piano concertos anyway? This is the first pairing with the Mendelssohn No. 1 that I know of - a nice choice and one that deserves to be substituted on concert programs for the overdone Tchaikovsky. Purchase Here

- John Sunier


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