Herewith, our quarterly collection of great new classical recordings:
Best Early Music: We’ve come a long way since E. Power Biggs took over St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice to recreate The Glory of Gabrieli. His pioneering effort produced some great LPs but also perpetuated a few myths. We now know that the famous cori spezzati of Venice—“choirs” of singers and players, usually smaller than Biggs’ modern ensembles—often needed to be closer together in order to execute their antiphonal exchanges at musically attractive tempos. Musicians performed not only in the high, improvidently separated organ galleries of St. Mark’s but also in several areas near the altar, facing one another. Moreover some works were not intended for the old church at all but for the friendlier acoustic of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco. A new generation of musicians has taken this into account and is serving up Gabrieli that’s more colorful, dramatic, and lively.
My favorite new recording in this vein is Polychoral Splendour from the four galleries of the Abbey Church of Muri (audite 92.652, CD/SACD). Where is Muri? Very near Basel, Switzerland. The chapel of the Benedictine monastery there features a relatively intimate Baroque interior (see pictures). Nevertheless the chapel’s octagonal design allows for four organ galleries. The eight singers of Cappella Murensis and sixteen instrumentalists of Les Cornets Noirs station themselves in as many spots as needed for each work on the album, and they proceed to make extremely musical sounds, vividly captured in true surround sound. The program booklet gives you not only a complete rundown on the equipment and recording format used but also a clearly labeled floor plan of the chapel, with letters assigned to its four galleries and ground-floor nave, and that leads into a listing for each selection showing exactly who is performing and where they are placed. Wir müssen die Ordnung haben, as some Baslers might say.
The program was chosen from the canzoni of Giovanni Gabrieli (c.1555–1612) and the sacrae symphoniae of Heinrich Schütz (1585–1672), his most celebrated German student. Tracks are sequenced so that we hear a big concerted number from several galleries, then an instrumental canzon as a palate-cleanser, then another big piece, and so on. Here is a bit of Schütz’s Warum toben die Heiden:
Best Chamber Music: Every June a certain Argentine pianist arrives in Lugano, Switzerland, to curate the Martha Argerich Project. She brings together famous colleagues and relative newcomers to explore works they wouldn’t otherwise get a chance to play. Momentarily unburdened of the ordinary pressures of their careers, the musicians rehearse at length, relax by the lake, and offer a string of extraordinary performances.
Also every June, EMI brings us the happy results via a budget-priced box of highlights from the previous year. The latest iteration, Martha Argerich and Friends Live from Lugano 2011 (EMI Classics; 3 CDs) more than meets expectations. At the heart of the collection lies Liszt’s Concerto pathétique, a two-piano stemwinder that brilliantly demonstrates this composer’s achievements. It’s a tone poem and a virtuoso showpiece and a manifesto for romantic idealism. Just listen:
Alongside it lies the dark lyricism of Rachmaninov’s Trio élégiaque No. 2, composed in 1893 in memory of the recently departed Tchaikovsky, and modeled after that composer’s own elegiac memorial to his mentor Nikolai Rubinstein.
There’s much more. I like the aggressively dramatic way that Argerich and violinist Renaud Capuçon tackle Beethoven’s Violin Sonata op. 30 no. 3 on the first disc, although that approach isn’t quite as successful with the Mozart and Haydn works that follow. Fortunately disc 3 plays more to the Project’s strengths: there’s a performance-to-die-for of Ravel’s La Valse in its two-piano incarnation, followed by Ravel’s G-Major Piano Concerto—another Argerich specialty—and then the Piano Quintet by one Juliusz Zarębski (1854–85), a contemporary of Liszt who died tragically young. Lovely music, passionately delivered and well worth hearing.
Best Solo Piano Discs: Among the virtues of the two sets I’m recommending is that they can be consumed in small portions. Plus, you can hit “shuffle” on your iPod and listen in any order you like. Or else settle in for an extended session, since these short pieces abound in variety. We’re talking about Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, Books I and II (András Schiff, ECM New Series 2270–73), and Haydn Piano Sonatas III (Marc-André Hamelin, Hyperion CDA67882).
Let us begin with Bach. Perhaps you have a couple of sets of the WTC around already. Sometimes called the Old Testament of keyboard music, or just The 48, this encyclopedic collection features a prelude and fugue in every major and minor key, twice. Many a piano student has labored over its fingerings, many a composer over its contrapuntal techniques. Dozens of pianists and harpsichordists (and a few organists) have recorded it.
Here’s what attracts me to Schiff’s new recording: It’s neither didactic nor mannered. Schiff is not out to teach us the music; he apparently believes that, given a gentle push, it speaks for itself. Schiff doesn’t overstress particular rhythms, he doesn’t introduce eccentrically bold accents or articulations. For the most part his playing is elegant, his tone singing, his phrases beautifully shaped. In short, he’s the anti-Gould. We are led into Bach’s worlds in a way that seems both reasonable and spontaneous.
I realize I’m making poor Mr. Schiff sound like Goldilocks’ porridge. But this is not the bland, self-effacing pianism that you may remember coming from András Schiff thirty years ago (he first recorded the WTC in 1984/85). He imbues this music with focused character, and just enough of it to unpack the music’s special secrets. Listen:
Or hear this:
Knotty and seamed, Schiff’s performance exposes the psychic trauma this fugue subject bears forward. It’s masterful playing because of its hesitations and ruptures, with a stunning, dissonant payoff near the end of the movement. When we hear this, we think: exactly.
I am not sure Marc-André Hamelin’s range extends quite as far in his third volume of selected Haydn piano sonatas. But that would be because Haydn did not set out to create an encyclopedia of keyboard styles. For Haydn, the piano sonata could be a vehicle for pedagogy or personal experiment or the amusement of intelligent amateurs. Thus some of these works take strange turns while others are meant merely to sparkle. In Hamelin’s hands they surely do. He is a past master of trills and ornaments, which matter immensely in works like these.
There are moments of more substance as well:
In terms of recorded sound, Schiff has the edge. But both men are superb technicians, and their repertoire allows them to go from spiky to smooth and back in moments, or at least in successive movements. You need these in your library—the Bach for protein, the Haydn for sweets after dinner.
Best Orchestral Music: There is a genre of Balinese gamelan music known as kebyar, known for its volatile character, its successive short sections differing violently in tempo, texture, timbre, and dynamics. The music can stop on a dime and often does. It can also erupt in sudden fury, driving its layered, interlocking rhythms and motifs to an astonishing series of climaxes.
I can’t help thinking that Olivier Messiaen (1908–1992) tapped into kebyar or its cousin, Balinese temple dance, while creating the Turangalila-Symphonie in the late ‘40s. Even then, he was known for his interest in what one critic called “Hindu materials,” not to mention birdcalls and medieval chant. In composing a 10-movement, 80-minute work for large orchestra, piano soloist, and ondes martenon (an early-20th-century synthesizer), he left nothing out. The result is a sprawling ode to love in all aspects, as passionate and rhapsodic as anything Liszt ever wrote. Messiaen claimed to have been inspired by the legend of Tristan and Isolde. Yet his turn to Eastern music as a source of the primitive and erotic suggests that Stravinsky’s Rite was his real model, and that he meant to cast it forever into the shade.
A new recording from pianist Steven Osborne and the Bergen Philharmonic, conducted by Juanjo Mena (Hyperion CDA67816), offers ample support for that argument. If the Turangalila-Symphonie is one hot mess, they let us enjoy every over-the-top moment of it. The trick is to get balances right (the better to hear those Forbidden-Planet-era synth licks), nail the pacing and ensemble, then let fly. If you try to tame the wild things in this score, you end up sapping its central aesthetic. Mena’s reading isn’t as suave as Myung Whun-Chung’s 1992 premiere of the revised score, but it packs a more potent punch. Is it any coincidence that the most celebrated audiophile rendition of this score comes from André Previn, a veteran of the movie studios?
But maybe your tastes lie elsewhere. If so, you might give the New York Philharmonic’s new Nielsen disc a try. Carl Nielsen (1865–1931) remains one of Denmark’s semi-hidden treasures, his musical renown based on a relative handful of works despite the advocacy of some big-name conductors. This new Da Capo SACD (6.220623) may help change that.
Two early symphonies, Nos. 2 “The Four Temperaments” and 3 “Sinfonia Espansiva,” make up its 73-minute playing time. Conductor Alan Gilbert, no stranger to Scandinavian music or musicians, does very well by both works. Captured in live performances, the NYP responds to their music director like the A-list group they are.
It is not easy to characterize Nielsen. His music is tonal, rooted in Beethovenian models but also drawing upon the sturdy qualities of Danish folksong. Having been raised in rural poverty, he was a realist about human nature. I’ll bet there is no other composer who portrays sanguinity—the state of happy contentment—with a lengthy side trip to melancholy, as Nielsen does in the finale of “The Four Temperaments.” In an age that prized complexity, he valued simplicity. In an age that valorized expressive extremes, he championed balance and clear-eyed humanity.
Nielsen’s music does portray conflict, if seldom the bloody clashes that lead to devastating resolution as in Beethoven or Mahler. Rather the contrasting themes themselves create balance and increasingly work toward a common goal. Listen, for example, to the way this theme from the first movement of “Espansiva” is developed:
Never one for podium theatrics, Mr. Gilbert brings a good combination of gravitas and motivating energy to his task. May he continue this symphony cycle, and also find a means of bringing the operatic Nielsen into his recording schedule. The present recording is sourced from 24/96 PCM and 24/352.8 DXD. I prefer the two-channel mixes slightly, perhaps because they offer less of Avery Fisher Hall.
Want to hear more Nielsen in fabulous sound? Check out Souvenir from the TrondheimSolistene (2L-090-PABD, Blu-Ray audio). Besides Nielsen’s Suite for String Orchestra and At the Bier of a Young Artist, you get two of Tchaikovsky’s most luscious string works, Souvenir de Florence and Serenade for Strings. It’s all vibrantly performed in both multichannel (5.1, 7.1, 9.1) and stereo. Morten Lindberg strikes again!
Orchestral Update: Marin Alsop’s Prokofiev Fifth is now available from Naxos in Blu-Ray audio (NBD0031). See my previous comments on this great recording; strongly recommended.
Best Solo Vocal: Veronique Gens scores with a marvelous recital of three orchestral song cycles from Berlioz and Ravel (Ondine ODE 1200-2). Vis-a-vis Berlioz, we get one masterpiece and one rather more obscure work. The masterpiece is Les Nuits d’été, the obscurity an early cantata, Herminie. The album is rounded out with Shéhérazade, Ravel’s tribute to the Russian exoticism he absorbed from Rimsky-Korsakov. Herminie is chiefly interesting because it provides a glimpse of young Berlioz toiling within the confines of French academicism to produce a winning entry for the Prix de Rome (he took second prize). Herminie also produced this memorable theme, which Berlioz would later use to much greater advantage:
But let’s hear Gens! The slightly smoky timbre of her voice perfectly suits Shéhérazade. We’ll hear the first two minutes of “Asie” with the Orchestre National des Pays de la Loire, conducted by John Axelrod. Asia, Asia, Asia, the poet sighs, I wish to go away with the boat /Cradled this evening in port / . . . To go away, toward the isles of flowers . . . / I wish to see Damascus and the cities of Persia, / . . . I wish to see beautiful silk turbans / On dark faces with bright teeth / . . . to see eyes dark with love / And pupils shining with joy / . . .
Best Opera: A mixed bag. My favorite Blu-Ray opera experience turned out to be the Glyndebourne Cenerentola (Opus Arte BD7008) originally released in 2008. I’m not sure why it popped up on my reviewing screen, but I’m glad it did. Singing, acting, and staging are superb. Ruxandra Donose makes a smart, sympathetic Cinderella, Luciano di Pasquale a deliciously vile (and not so smart) Don Magnifico, and everyone else is way more than adequate, both vocally and dramatically. This production is now being offered as a three-fer along with the Glyndebourne Cosí and Fledermaus: six DVDs for the price of one (no sign of a parallel Blu-Ray offer). They’re all terrific productions, and at that price not just a steal but more like grand larceny.
I had high hopes for a new Falstaff from the Zurich Opera (Blu-Ray; C Major 711204). But the staging was uneven, the casting more so. Verdi’s last opera is not easy. It has a reputation for lacking melody. Yet one could rightly say it’s all melody, a lacy bolt of whole-cloth lyricism from beginning to end, with many moments that can stand as highlights in between. The title character should radiate both humor and pathos. We meet Falstaff as an old man, but he must occasionally remind us that he was once a warrior, a force of nature in all pursuits, including love. The finest interpretations offer glimpses of his potency—or the memory of it—amid an aging scoundrel’s blusters, feints, and ruses. Alas, Ambrogio Maestri’s small-bore portrayal sent me back to Tito Gobbi and the 1957 Karajan reading. Now there’s a Falstaff.
More rewarding was Christian Thielemann’s Strauss evening with Renée Fleming (Opus Arte OA BD 7101D). It’s an odd package: Fleming offers four (unrelated) songs and a scene from Arabella, then Thielemann and the Vienna Philharmonic play the popular Alpensinfonie. Either you’ll want more Fleming, or else you’ll want more orchestral Strauss, and not necessarily his hour-long slog up and down the mountain. But the Salzburg Festival audience seemed to enjoy themselves. Maybe you will too, since these are fine performances.
Something to look forward to: beginning this fall and continuing into the Verdi bicentennial year (2013), Teatro Regio di Parma and Unitel Classica will record and release all 26 Verdi operas plus the Requiem as Blu-Ray discs. I’ll have more to say about this monumental project next month, and I look forward to reviewing the first offerings.
And finally: Here’s a shout-out to AIX Records. Back when DVD-Audio looked like it might fly, Dr. Mark Waldrep took the lead in developing a catalog of appealing multichannel music for all tastes. I didn’t pay too much attention then, in spite of my nephew-in-law’s repeated urgings. (He’s the acoustician / sound engineer / speaker designer in the family.)
It’s good to report that AIX is back in the game. They’re now issuing Blu-Ray discs with hi-res audio and video. Some classy material is available, thanks to the artists that Mark has recorded over the past several years. I previewed a number of these discs, which are consistently well engineered. Quality sound and picture aside, the creative angle here is that performers’ work is captured “live” but without an audience. It’s as if you were watching them at work in the studio, except they’ve got nice clothes on and they only do complete takes. No one seems noticeably ill at ease.
Two recent classical discs are available, a Shostakovich/Debussy/Brockman selection from Chamber Music Palisades, and a set of Mozart works with the Old City String Quartet and guests. The Mozart disc is also 3D-compatible. (I haven’t tried that feature.) Performances are clean if somewhat generic. I liked the Debussy Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp on the Palisades disc, and I liked the Mozart String Quartet K. 169 on the other. There’s a selection of pop, jazz, and rock programs available as well. Of those, I especially enjoyed singer-songwriter John Gorka’s Gypsy Life (apparently already well-known from previous incarnations). See www.aixrecords.com for more information.