Classical Corner — 14 October 2011


Classical Corner: Fall Record Roundup

Maybe you’ve noticed this: of the making of classical recordings there is no end. People just keep turning out new “product.” So what if you already have eight Beethoven symphony cycles —here’s another! For years we’ve been told the classical market is shrinking. Can it actually absorb all this stuff? Of course it can! Some new releases are really superb. If you poke around, you will hear new approaches to old favorites, discover fresh repertoire, and fill your room with sounds that make your friends jealous. (C’mon, you know you like that part!)

Every change of season, I’ll do my bit by providing thumbnail reviews of new recordings. (Regular Classical Corner features will continue as well.) I’ll emphasize what’s best out there and keep my remarks brief, to cover more territory. Whether these reviews serve to reinforce what you’ve read elsewhere or bring you to a performer or work for the first time, I hope it results in renewed enjoyment.

Let’s begin with new piano performances. Top of the pile this quarter—maybe this year—is Paul Lewis’s magisterial interpretation of the Beethoven Diabelli Variations. These 33 variations are based on another composer’s theme, a tune that must have seemed unworthy of consideration by a master like Beethoven. But the results reveal another side of his genius. Around the time he was creating the monumental final piano sonatas opp. 109–111, works that scale the heights of human aspiration, breaking new formal ground and all that, Beethoven also began playing around with Diabelli’s little waltz. With the very first variation on it, he let us know that he would not be bound by its limitations. Listen to the theme and part of Variation I as Lewis gives it to us:

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Throughout the work, the variations continue to range far and wide. They have to, just to live up to the standard established at the outset. Part of Lewis’s contribution is to emphasize this range, by pointing up stylistically progressive elements of Beethoven’s invention. So in Variation II, for example, Lewis overlays some gauzy articulation and nuanced dynamics that demonstrate its anticipation of Debussy and Impressionism. Tone color and minute gradations of amplitude become more significant than pitch or rhythm:

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But Lewis also brings out the grand narrative sweep in this work. What we hear is not 33 little pearls on a string—the variation ideal as Bach or Mozart might have conceived it—but an epic story that builds across several variations at a stretch and then releases the pent-up tension in succeeding numbers. In Brahms or Schoenberg this would be called “developing variation”; Lewis makes it clear that Beethoven thought in such longer units as well. The result is an extraordinary journey that seems much shorter than the 52-plus minutes on this CD.

It also has been rewarding to dip into Stephen Hough’s recent presentation of the complete Chopin Waltzes for Hyperion. Wondering what “complete” means? Here it denotes all eight published waltzes, nine unpublished waltzes, three “doubtful attributions,” and the Nocturne in E-flat, op. 9/2, obviously influenced by waltz style. Instead of sitting through all 21 selections at once, you may want to invoke the “shuffle” command on your player. But you may find you’re unable to stop listening after just two or three waltzes, because Hough brings out the mystery and delicate beauty in each one. Here is a bit of the C-sharp-minor waltz (op. 64/2); listen to his expert use of tempo rubato, never too much or too little.

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On a more utilitarian note, I found that I was able to use the sounds of the E-flat-major waltz, op. 18, especially those hammered repetitions of a single pitch, to determine the relative merits of a couple of headphone pairs I was evaluating. Hough plays a Yamaha piano, bringing out every color of which it’s capable. In general, it’s very well recorded, as is the Lewis Diabelli set.

If you want to hear an absolutely superlative example of recorded piano sound, though, you’ll have to audition an eccentric new miscellany featuring violinist Martin Chalifour, concertmaster of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. This is Yarlung Records’ second Chalifour excursion. It includes chamber works by Steven Stucky and Esa-Pekka Salonen, coupled with orchestrally accompanied music by Witold Lutosławski and a fellow identified on the jewel case as “W. Amadeus Mozart.”

The Mozart Concerto No. 5 in A major is nicely done, as you would expect from Mr. Chalifour, Sir Neville Marriner, and the LA Phil. And so is the Lutosławski Chain 2 under Andrey Boreyko, although it doesn’t achieve the dynamism and coherence of the old Deutsche Grammophon recording, conducted by the composer and featuring violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter. Lutosławski wrote it for her, and it shows.

No, the most compelling reason to get the Chalifour recording is to hear how magnificently meaty a Steinway D can sound, which it does in Stucky’s Tres Pinturas. The title refers to paintings by Oaxacan artist Rufino Tamayo. Stucky arranged three movements from his 1995 orchestral work of the same name for violin and piano. For this CD, Yarlung chief Bob Attiyeh also rearranged the composer’s ordering of these movements. Maybe he did that in order to highlight the remarkable sound of the piano in “Musicas dormidas” (Sleeping Music), which leads off the album. Here’s a taste:

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Martin Chalifour and… was recorded with AKG C-24 tube microphones, then given a “German Audiophile Pressing” with High Resolution Virgin (!) Polycarbonate and Yarlung Special Alloy. With the apparent exception of the Stucky movements, these are live recordings, and they do sound good, although I found the audience’s contributions to Chain 2 fatally distracting. You hear what you first think are intriguing percussion effects, and then you realize, no, it’s just some poor soul in the fourth row who dropped his program. Or coughed.

Authentic, enjoyable “special timbres” are indeed present on a new disc of early Mendelssohn concertos from Harmonia Mundi. They come to us courtesy of pianist Kristian Bezuidenhout, who plays a copy of an 1824 Conrad Graf fortepiano, and the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, who play similarly ancient instruments. The music, however, is by an extremely young composer: Mendelssohn was only thirteen or fourteen when he wrote these two concertos. He didn’t get around to the Octet or the Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture until he was all of fifteen.

Felix wrote the A-minor Piano Concerto on this disc for his sister Fanny, who played it at one of the family’s Sunday soirées late in 1822. It sounds a lot like Hummel or Weber, both of whom had recently contributed works to the genre that Mendelssohn was likely to have known. The overall effect is of Mozartian language without Mozart’s redeeming wit or economy.

More appealing is the Double Concerto for Piano and Violin, completed half a year after that early Piano Concerto. Mendelssohn wrote the Double as a vehicle for performance with his childhood friend violinist Eduard Rietz. The two instruments often enter and play together, seemingly ignoring the orchestra—and its thematic material—entirely. These passages are the highlight of the work, giving us not only brilliant virtuoso playing but also the Romantic expression, alternately tender and rash, so characteristic of the age. And listen to the way those soloists jump-start the finale:

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Got brass? Want more? My favorite big-band disc this fall is Chicago Symphony Orchestra Brass Live from CSO Resound. What fun! Everyone knows the Chicago Symphony brass section is a powerhouse, a squadron of elite players who pack both punch and politesse. It’s a treat to hear them on their own, joined by a few choice friends, for a live recording in Chicago’s Orchestra Hall (an environment apparently as nourishing to bass-drum thwacks as to brasswinds). Thanks to this collection, I’ve been humming Walton’s Crown Imperial every morning lately. Check it out:

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Yes, they do some Gabrieli, and very well. Percy Grainger’s Lincolnshire Posy shows up too, in an effective arrangement by Timothy Higgins. Yet I especially enjoyed the more adventurous items: Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor, creatively transcribed by Eric Crees, Silvestre Revueltas’ Sensemayà—a knockout—and three selections from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. Here’s a bit of the Bach, just to whet your appetite:

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Other than that, my player’s been spinning a lot of Szymanowski lately. Karol Szymanowski (1882–1937), Polish pianist and composer, got over his youthful infatuation with Wagner, absorbed the lessons of Debussy, Skryabin, and Stravinsky, and eventually carved out a highly individual path, including a unique appreciation of Polish national music, especially that of the Tatra mountains. Not that you’ll hear a single rustic note in most of his symphonic scores. Listen, for example, to the way his Violin Concerto No. 1 begins:

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It eventually builds to intense, erotically charged passages like this one, from the finale:

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That was violinist Arabella Steinbacher and the Berlin Radio Symphony, conducted by Marek Janowski. This gorgeous hunk of ear candy comes to us courtesy of PentaTone Classics, an enterprising bunch of former Philips engineers and executives celebrating their tenth anniversary as prime purveyors of multichannel SACDs, the great little format that couldn’t catch a break. They’ve put out a compilation, PentaTone: The First 10 Years, including this and an irresistible number of other reissues, one for each year of their existence. You may have a few of these already—my copy of Julia Fischer’s Russian Violin Concertos would be worn to a nub, if silver discs had nubs—but the set is available for a song ($60 to $70 USD) and you know you’ll want the others sooner or later. Plus, there’s a bonus disc with test tones, surround effects, and more.

Naxos continues its Blu-Ray rollout with a disc of two Szymanowski symphonies, No. 3 (“Song of the Night,” from the same feverish creative period in which the first violin concerto was produced) and No. 4 (“Symphonie Concertante,” with solo passages for piano, violin, and other instruments). These are virtually self-recommending, as conductor Antoni Wit’s performances were so fondly received in their initial CD form. I especially enjoyed No. 4 (1932), which I hadn’t heard before, and which channels the composer’s redoubtable energies into slightly more compact forms. The multichannel mix on this release is handled much better than on the Mahler Eighth mentioned in a previous column, but I found I still preferred the 24/96 two-channel PCM.

Like Reich? Me too. Two new Steve Reich issues stand out this quarter. Of the two, the audiophile item comprises new performances of two works written over twenty years ago. Kristjan Järvi, who has championed other American minimalists, proves to be an able advocate for Three Movements (1986) and The Desert Music (1984). Chandos has captured both in very good multichannel DSD. Three Movements may be the more immediately attractive. You will recognize the Reich of Music for 18 Instruments here: captivating shifts of timbre, lots of rhythmic drive, subtle growth and decay of polyphonic or polyrhythmic textures. But Reich adjusted his signature approach in these works, to suit a larger ensemble and (perhaps) to accommodate the expectations of the traditional symphony crowd. Bottom line, it doesn’t take nearly as long for things to happen as with some of his music from the ‘70s. Consider the first couple of minutes in Three Movements:

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He really gets going toward the end; the harmonic palette seems relatively wider and more expressive as well. Further down the road, jazzier rhythms kick in. Definitely recommended.

It took me a bit longer to warm up to The Desert Music, though it’s filled with demonstration-calibre sonic moments (all those percussionists!). This is a choral-orchestral work. Reich set the words of William Carlos Williams, good, straightforward American words, which do not always emerge idiomatically from the mouths of Järvi’s Austrian choristers. Plus, the composer has his own way of placing words into an orchestral landscape, and that may take some getting used to. It’s worth the effort. The Desert Music is a powerful, varied score that will surprise and delight you with its inventions.

Words also dominate the other Steve Reich release—specifically the words of the largely anonymous firemen, air traffic controllers, and mourners who supply the text for WTC 9/11, Reich’s brief essay on the tragedy of September 11, 2001. Reich fans will recall that he has used recorded voices effectively before. In fact, his first experiments with “pulse” or “phase” music involved manipulations of a taped voice. Here the approach is closer to what he did in Different Trains, in which speakers’ pitch inflections and rhythms are eerily matched in the instrumental motives. The Kronos Quartet provide harsh, monochromatic, insistently pulsating accompaniment. There is at least one other sound employed that you will find appropriate, and utterly devastating. WTC 9/11 is not so much a memorial as a memory. It brings back the numbing shock of the event itself, and Reich offers no attempt at “closure” or “uplift” at the end. That may be just as well.

The disc is filled out with Mallet Quartet (2009) and Dance Patterns (2002). I liked the sunny feeling and the five-octave marimbas in the former very much. Recommended.

By coincidence I was sent several recordings of 17th- and 18th-century music this month that offer music for mourning and remembrance. The one to get is Johann Christoph Bach: Welt, gute Nacht, from John Eliot Gardiner. He has assembled a collection of arias, laments, motets, and dialogues by Sebastian’s older first cousin, once removed (1642–1703) that show how much more practiced the typical Baroque musician was in addressing the matter of death. Christian worship focused on the inevitable end of earthly existence; reminders of human mortality loomed ever-present in daily life as well. “Lord, turn unto me and have mercy upon me,” says the biblical text in the first selection. “My breath is faint, and my days are cut short. The grave awaits.”

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The disc ends with another dialogue, this one based on lines from the Song of Songs and obviously meant for one of the many Bach wedding celebrations. Here Johann Christoph frankly acknowledges that the path of salvation runs through the garden of earthly delights.

I have gathered my myrrh with my spice
I have eaten my honeycomb with my honey
I have drunk my wine with my milk.

The English Baroque Soloists and a fine vocal octet deliver this music—remarkably varied and vital in spite of its often mournful subject matter—in a manner both warmly expressive and historically informed. I found myself returning to its comforts again and again.


Recordings discussed in this survey

Beethoven: Diabelli-Variationen. Paul Lewis, piano. Harmonia Mundi HMC 902071. CD, 2011.

Chopin: The Complete Waltzes. Stephen Hough, piano. Hyperion CDA67849. CD, 2011.

Martin Chalifour and the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Walt Disney Concert Hall. Chalifour, violin; Sir Neville Marriner & Andrey Boreyko, conductors. Yarlung Records 67893. CD, 2011.

Mendelssohn: Double Concerto for Violin and Piano; Piano Concerto in A minor. Kristian Bezuidenhout, fortepiano; Gottfried von der Goltz, violin & direction. Freiburger Barockorchester. Harmonia Mundi HMC 902082. CD, 2011.

Chicago Symphony Orchestra Brass Live. Dale Clevenger, Jay Friedman, Michael Mulcahy and Mark Ridenour, conductors. CSO Resound CSOR 901 1103. CD/SACD, 2011. Available as 320k mp3 download.

PentaTone: The First 10 Years. Set of 10 SACDs plus a bonus disc. Complete list of performances and performers available here. PentaTone Classics PTC 5186 500. CD/SACD, 2011.

Szymanowski: Symphony No. 3 (“Song of the Night”), op. 27; Symphony No. 4 (“Symphonie Concertante”), op. 60. Soloists, Warsaw Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra; Antoni Wit, conductor. Naxos Blu-ray Disc NBD 0022. Performances from 2008 and 2009, BD, 2011.

Steve Reich: Three Movements; The Desert Music. Chorus sine nomine, Tonkünstler-Orchester Niederösterreich. Kristjan Järvi, conductor. Chandos CHSA 5091. CD/SACD, 2011.

Steve Reich: WTC 9/11; Mallet Quartet; Dance Patterns. Kronos Quartet, Sō Percussion, others. Nonesuch 28236. CD + DVD (Mallet Quartet only), 2011.

Johann Christoph Bach: Welt, gute Nacht. Vocal octet with English Baroque Soloists; John Eliot Gardiner, conductor. Soli Deo Gloria SDG 715. CD, 2011.

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Lawrence Schenbeck

Lawrence Schenbeck lives in Atlanta Georgia, is into high-end and has a doctorate in music performance and literature. "I have spent most of my grownup years either teaching, conducting, or writing about music. A lot of that writing was directed at other professionals, but some was meant for civilians. I always tried not to sound pompous (that was hard) and not to condescend to my readers. Back in the days when I gave pre-concert lectures for the Atlanta Symphony, I would invariably meet audience members whose knowledge of concert music far exceeded mine in certain respects. Whether you're casually exploring classical music or passionately committed to it, I hope this column will be useful."

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