Herewith, our quarterly survey of the best new classical recordings.
Best Chamber Music. Dvořák: String Quintet in G, op. 77, w/ Nocturne op. 40, Scherzo op. 97. Berlin Philharmonic String Quintet. Pentatone PTC 5186 458, 2012; SACD/CD.
This new recording has everything: great performers, great music, and terrific sound. You may know Dvořák mainly from the “New World” Symphony and possibly the “American” String Quartet op. 96, but he wrote an amazing amount of music in virtually every genre. The G-major String Quintet is scored for two violins, viola, cello, and bass—in other words, it approaches orchestral music in terms of range and color. And the presence of a contrabass means the cello is freer to take on melodic responsibilities, to which cellist Tatjana Vassiljeva certainly warms. Listen to the rich timbral and textural variety in this excerpt from the first movement:
Everyone gets to shine. Not surprisingly, the members of the Berlin Philharmonic String Quintet maintain a high level of musical energy throughout, and even the fillers are engaging. The Nocturne op. 40 had originally been a movement in the G-major Quintet. The Scherzo op. 97 is taken from a quintet composed in Spillville, Iowa, right after op. 96. Its “drum” rhythms may well pay homage to Native American music, but you can hear the plaintive Czech melodies that the homesick Dvořák also slipped in. Here again are the Berliners, with Ms. Vassiljeva taking the lead:
Also recommended: if you have Julia Fischer’s Russian concerto disc, you will have pegged Alexander Glazunov (1865–1936) already: a great melodist, totally at ease in the production of orchestral ear candy, less adept in the vivid-personal-style department. Now the Zemlinsky Quartet has issued a new disc of two string quartets and the Idyll for horn and quartet (Praga Digitals PRD/DSD 250 281; SACD/CD). It will not radically alter your perspective on Glazunov, but like the Violin Concerto, it makes very pleasant listening. As a young man he wrote a lot of chamber music; the Quartet No. 3 in G major was compiled from movements written at separate times for various purposes, but collected for performance at the home of his patron Belayev. It abounds in Russian—or at least “Slavonic”—materials, as in this lively scherzo:
By the time Glazunov was nearing thirty, he had thrown aside some of the influence of the “Mighty Five” in favor of a more cosmopolitan approach. His Quartet No. 4 in A Minor reveals the influence of Brahms and Tchaikovsky. Like the Quartet No. 3 and the Idyll, it receives a near-ideal performance, captured in transparent, demonstration-quality multichannel sound.
Best Early Music. Barockes Welttheater: Johann Heinrich Schmelzer Sonate & Balleti. Freiburger BarockConsort. Harmonia Mundi HMC 902087, 2012; CD or download.
The Freiburger BarockConsort is a small group drawn from the celebrated Freiburger Barockorchester. They specialize in “less frequently played music of the 17th and early 18th centuries.” Uh-oh. You’re thinking maybe there’s a reason some early-Baroque music is “less frequently played.” You’re thinking maybe it sucks. Gentle reader, it does not. History has neglected poor Schmelzer (c. 1620–1680) mainly because he worked for the court of the Habsburg emperors, who forbade him to publish. Also, his music was often written for chamber ensembles in combinations that soon became unfashionable; scores and parts were then discarded by later generations at the court.
Don’t let that prevent you from enjoying what’s left. Back in the day, Schmelzer’s music was prized by many non-Habsburgs. Numerous copies have survived in various archives and private collections. Here’s an Intrada and Saltarella from his Balletto primo di Spoglia di Papagi. This little suite was presumably derived from one of the court’s commedia dell’arte-influenced masquerades or ballets.
And now a bit of the Sonata (Battaglia) à 7, in which the sober contrapuntal strains of a Baroque sonata da chiesa (church sonata) give way to pitched battles between opposing instrumental forces:
Best Orchestral Music. Several good candidates in this category. I’m giving the nod, by several hairs, to Jonathan Nott’s Mahler Seventh. None of the Mahler symphonies is a cakewalk for performers, but the Seventh has proved notoriously difficult to pull off over the years. In it we find many familiar Mahler tropes: High Romantic aspiration, gallows humor, pathos and tragedy, sunny triumph. Yet the work’s idiosyncratic combination of those elements often stymies conductors and listeners alike. Nott and the Bamberger Symphony do it justice, giving us an honest yet deeply felt—and very well recorded—interpretation. (Tudor 7176, 2012; SACD/CD.)
The five movements are arranged symmetrically around a central, dark Scherzo. Things go bump in the night, and not always in a good way. On either side lie two Nachtmusik movements, nocturnes not only in name but also in character: shadowy, slightly mysterious, moving uncertainly between serenity and something more like terror. In Nachtmusik II, listen to the way Mahler allows a voluptuous tide of feeling to spill out and then veer off into paranoia. Strange stuff.
That was a mandolin, by the way. It’s not the only unusual color you’ll hear in this symphony. The opening of the first movement features a tenor horn, which the late Michael Steinberg described as “an oversize cornet whose tone is forceful yet touched by human vulnerability.” Mahler asked for großer Ton, “big sound”:
And here are the French horns, in their second big entrance in the second movement (Nachtmusik I). Hear that amost-inaudible clattering in the background? Cowbells. Mahler marks them in weiter Entfernung, “in the far distance.” (Don’t worry. I’m not going to attempt any Christopher Walken-related humor here.)
Also recommended: If Mahler’s most problematic symphony doesn’t strike your fancy, here are three other new discs worthy of consideration: (1) two piano concertos by Scottish composer Erik Chisholm (1904–1965), rendered with all appropriate spirit by Danny Driver and the BBC Scottish Symphony under Rory Macdonald (Hyperion CDA67880); (2) Post-romantic Russian music from Mieczysław Weinberg (1919–1996), performed by Vladimir Lande and the St. Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra (Naxos 8.572779); (3) Venezuelan nationalism from Evencio Castellanos (1915–1984), featuring Jan Wagner and the Orquesta Sinfónica de Venezuela (Naxos 8.572681).
It’s easy to hear why sophisticated Scots revere Chisholm. His investment in Celtic music is obvious in Piano Concerto No. 1, “Pìobaireachd.” Here’s the opening:
Once the music moves past that pastoral keening, we also get a sense of why Chisholm was nicknamed “MacBartók.”
The other Chisholm piano concerto, “Hindustani,” plays with Indian rāga, a melodic system for improvising music that bears some structural similarity to pìobaireachd, the Highland term for classical improvisation on the bagpipes. John Purser’s excellent notes for the Hyperion release include a welcome, non-technical explanation of all that, and much more about Chisholm’s adventurous life: he lived and worked in Singapore, South Africa, and elsewhere.
Last summer in Boulder I got to hear a good live performance of Weinberg’s Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes, so it’s a pleasure to find it idiomatically rendered in the new Naxos disc. His Symphony No. 6 uses a much larger canvas, including a boys’ choir in all but two of the five movements. In it, the composer traces themes of childhood from early innocence to the horrors of the Holocaust, ending with a lullaby that promises children worldwide a brighter future. That last sounds like stock Soviet “socialist realism,” and it’s probably the weakest of the movements. Elsewhere Weinberg concocts a potent amalgam of the sweet and bitter—one can see why Shostakovich, one of the great ironists of the 20th century, respected Weinberg so much that he used this work as teaching material in his classes. Here’s some of the second movement, which sets a poem by Lev Kvitko about a boy who makes a violin from scraps and then plays it for the birds and animals who gather around:
In the central movement, whimsy turns to stark tragedy. There Weinberg adapted a setting from his Jewish Songs (1944) in which the ruins of a home have become a graveyard for murdered children. It is difficult to say more about the music here without reference to the text, but Naxos does not provide texts or translations of any of these poems. Nor are they otherwise readily available. It must also be noted that Lande’s performance of Symphony No. 6 lacks the intensity of the old Kiril Kondrashin recording for Melodiya (nla). Still, this disc provides a good introduction to Weinberg’s world, and it’s definitely worth a listen.
The Castellanos recording offers much simpler pleasures. Even though I usually flee at the sound of symphonic castanets, this excursion into the Venezuelan countryside was quite enjoyable. Castellanos, a hugely influential composer and conductor in his native land, moved well beyond typical tourist-level depictions in these miniatures. Here is the opening of Suite Avileña, a delicate portrait that draws upon memories of Caracas flower vendors’ early-morning chants.
Best Choral Music. No contest: John Eliot Gardiner’s new live recording of the complete Bach motets (Soli Deo Gloria SDG 716) sweeps the board. Quite simply, it is the best performance of these pieces I have ever heard. It will be difficult for me to avoid going on at too much length about what makes these works so important, and why Gardiner has gotten them so right. But I will try.
First, why do the Bach motets matter? Think of it this way: what was Bach really, really good at? Counterpoint. More broadly put, he possessed the ability to create complex but appealing multi-voiced musical fabrics guided by harmony. Thus we prize works like Art of Fugue, The “Goldberg” Variations, and The Well-Tempered Clavier above many others. We also take special delight in Bach’s orchestral music when he weaves fugal textures or interesting counterpoint into it, which he inevitably does. He can’t help it. He’s Bach.
In the world of vocal music, the richest source of Bachian counterpoint per square inch is not the cantatas, not the great Passions or even the B-Minor Mass (although . . .). It’s the motets. These are ensemble works—that means multiple lines of music that continually vie for our attention as they complement each other, work things out together, agree to disagree, whatever. Besides offering a wealth of counterpoint, the motets have expressive, varied texts, usually taken from hymns or scripture; thus in a literary sense they also stand head and shoulders above much of the third-rate poetic dreck with which Bach was saddled in the cantatas.
Gardiner’s earlier recording of the motets (in 1980 for Erato) also won critical praise. I have the LP, and it’s glorious, especially for its varied instrumental accompaniments and its glistening analog sound. (The CD reissue does not glisten.) But this new edition dispenses with the instruments except for a basic continuo group. That has the salutary effect of focusing attention on the vocal ensemble, which remains small—perhaps three or four to a part for works that vary from four to five to eight parts. (The album avoids listing performers for individual works.) Gardiner’s long experience with the motets, and his use of seasoned vocalists, pays off. Every measure glows. Every phrase is alive with rhythmic energy. Every word of the text, including der and und, receives meaningful inflection. (Okay, I exaggerate, but you get the picture.)
Speaking of pictures, check out the cover of the CD (actually a nice little book, with Gardiner’s insightful notes on each work plus texts and translations). It features high-wire artist Philippe Petit inching his way across some chasm or another, barefoot. Anyone who’s ever tried to perform this music will understand. One of the great delights of this new recording is that you can hear the singers exuberantly taking chances, doing things in the excitement of live performance that might not have withstood the patch-and-edit process in a studio recording. For example:
Also recommended: Creator Spiritus (Harmonia Mundi HMU 807553; SACD/CD), Paul Hillier’s new collection of mostly vocal “chamber works” by Arvo Pärt (b. 1935). In any other month, this one would take the prize. Pärt is the founder of and single most influential composer within an entire subgenre sometimes (crudely) termed “holy minimalism.” If you have somehow avoided hearing his music but would like to remedy that, this would be a good starter set. Most of these works are fairly short and date from somewhere in the 21st century.
The longer Stabat Mater, which anchors the album, was composed in 1985 and recorded shortly thereafter for ECM by the Hilliard Ensemble, of which Hillier was a member at that point. The ECM performance is excellent, but the new one is equally good and has the advantage of better recording. Voices and instruments take on greater corporeality as they float in a larger, deeper space. Stabat Mater employs Pärt’s by-now-familiar “tintinnabuli” style of composition, which basically balances arpeggios and stepwise motion within an extremely simple but seldom-predictable set of phrase and texture patterns. The results are both calming and compelling, if that makes any sense.
Here is an excerpt from that work, featuring members of Theatre of Voices and the NYYD Quartet:
Best Opera Recordings. In September 2010 Deutsche Grammophon released a DVD of the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Carmen with Elīna Garanča; it immediately shot to the top of the classical sales charts and stayed there for months. Last month they released the Blu-Ray version (073 4799) in this country—it was available earlier in Europe, and remains cheaper there—which gives me an excuse to bring it to your attention now. Don’t hesitate. Even if you are not a confirmed opera nut, you will enjoy this. The production is first-rate, the casting luxurious, the stage direction effective, the sound mostly quite good. And: besides being an excellent actor and singer, Garanča is an extremely attractive young woman. There you go. All you need to know. (See this month’s Featured Image; photo by Ken Howard, Metropolitan Opera.)
I came to this video via another Blu-Ray with la Garanča, and I can unhesitatingly also recommend that one: Donizetti’s Anna Bolena, also on Deutsche Grammophon (073 4728). This production was recorded at the Wiener Staatsoper and besides Garanča as Giovanna (Jane) Seymour, features Anna Netrebko in the title role, Ildebrando D’Arcangelo as Enrico VIII, and Francesco Meli and Elisabeth Kulman in supporting roles. I originally purchased it because of Netrebko, who in a few short years has become a soprano superstar, tackling many of the central roles in the literature and showing a special talent for Russian heroines and the bel canto repertoire. Here she shines as Anna, tossing off her character’s intricate passaggi and fiery declamation with equal confidence.
The sound of the Staatsoper production in this Blu-Ray comes off slightly better than what we got with Carmen, which is troubled by occasional boxy or overloaded vocal moments. I’m not sure what was going on, but the Met’s mics seemed to get thrown momentarily when a singer turned his head, redirecting the sound a bit. The Vienna Bolena sounds more consistently big and free vocally, detailed and well-balanced orchestrally. Maybe the slightly smaller Staatsoper accommodates mic placement better.
As I said, Netrebko is fabulous, and it’s a great role for her. But Garanča almost steals the show with her nuanced portrait of Seymour, madly in love with Enrico and filled with guilt over her betrayal of a queen and a friend. She gets a lot of great music with which to vent her feelings.
In the scene below, Anna is sad and suspicious about Enrico’s alienated affections. Giovanna tells Anna that it is she who has displaced her in Enrico’s heart, and that the King is planning to do whatever it takes to be rid of her and make Giovanna his new Queen. At first Anna curses her, but at the end she sends Giovanna away and pardons her, leaving her to God’s mercy. This excerpt shows the high quality of the interaction between Netrebko and Garanča, but it offers only a suggestion of the vocal fireworks that occur elsewhere, including a great “mad scene” near the end for Netrebko’s character.
Well, once again it’s time to stop. Toward the end of the month, I’ll be back with talk about counterpoint, an important and endlessly fascinating feature of the Western Classical tradition. Please join me then.