Mstation Classical Reviews

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Thu, 01 Dec 2005

Rameau, Les Paladins

Jean-Phillipe Rameau, Les Paladins
Les Arts Florissants
William Christie
Jose Montalvo
2 DVDs, Opus Arte

This Comedie Lyrique in three parts was first produced in 1760 and was quite controversial. The problem was that many people were getting quite sick of the fossilised form of these things where mythical beings (those in charge) were lauded incessantantly. The times were a changing and although it is hard to tell just how interested Rameau might have been in the ordinary man, it is easy to imagine that his creative urges might have spurred him on.

It is said that part of his inspiration was the work of Pergolese and more particularly the whole, more humanist, Italian style of the time. He also added a degree of irony and self parody. The judgement of today is that he was very successful and this production actually seeks to capture the spirit by including all sorts of choreography that is anachcronistic -- break dancers and weird twitchy movements to the fore. As such it will annoy some fans of this period of music. It is not, however, a dumbing down and in fact it is quite a spectacle and the music itself has not been tampered with. So, like the original production must have seemed to those who saw it, it is a little odd. (Count K)

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Penguins March

Alex Wurman, The March of the Penguins
LP, Warners

Penguins! Linux lovers will probably check this out just because the OS mascot is a penguin and penguins are generally kind of cute.

This CD is actually the score for a movie where lots of penguins march about the place in an environment that is both beautiful and forbidding. The score is neo-Romantic but more in a chamber group kind of way than an overblown orchestra way. The tones are organic, smooth, and analogue and the whole thing, while tracing varying movements on the screen, is quite tranquil.

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Mozart, Mass in C Minor

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Messe en ut mineur
Missa in C Minor, KV427
accentus, la chambre philharmonique
Emmanuel Krivine
LP, naive

Mozart had at one time developed a dislike for sacred works while he was under the yoke of the Prince-Archbishop of Saltzburg. He had been forced to limit the times to forty-five minutes for a Mass as well as cutting back on contrapuntal work so that the voices were simple and intelligible. This has been an age old battle in the Church with Roundheads of all ages adhering to simple-minded ideas of what the message might be. Soaring beauty meant and means nothing to them -- philistines!

At any rate, Mozart later wrote this Mass for his wife Costanze, and it is thought his new religiousity was prompted by her pious family, the Webers. Costanze also loved the fugue and so here we have a fugal Mass. Rather nice it is too. There are a few mysteries though. Why did it take so long? Why was it in C minor? C Minor is and was not your regular key for a celebratory piece. Was Wolfie being ironic? Was he actually saying something to the first Weber sister he proposed to who turned him down?

An extra treat is that period instruments are used and so we might get a better idea of just what it was that Mozart wrote, other than just tones. All in all, it's a first class performance. (Count K)

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King's Singers

The King's Singers, From Byrd to the Beatles
DVD, Arthaus

The King's Singers are six male voices. Here, there is a selection of pieces from Byrd, Weelkes, Passereau, Monteverdi, Tallis, and others, as well as more modern works (slightly!) from the likes of Duke Ellington, the Beatles, Freddie Mercury and Billy Joel.

The idea is an evening out of nice singing without any particular musicological lessons to be learnt. It's an idea that normally annoys me but I know I should lighten up, and I do ... occasionally. The saving graces here are that the singing is very nice and interleaved with the songs is interview footage with members of the group talking about all sorts of things, including their touring and the tunes at hand. Curiously, throughout the interviews there's a narrative drive towards the endpiece -- Spem in Aliem.

The performances are very good, including the aforementioned Spem in Aliem which was composed to be sung by a much larger ensemble. The visuals consist of concert footage and cuts to individuals speaking.

This DVD is actually a co-production between Floating Earth, The King's Singers, and Iambic Productions and licensed to a number of companies for DVD distribution. Quite interesting. Good to see that the artists get a look in. (Count K)

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Graham: Causon, Ravel, Debussy

Ernest CHAUSON (1855-1899)
Poeme de l’amour et de la mer 
La Fleur des eaux [12.05]
Interlude [2.30]
La Mort de l’amour [13.12]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Asie [9.37]
La Flute enchantee [2.55]
L’Indifferent [4.16]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918) orch. John ADAMS (b.1947)
Le Livre de Baudelaire 
Le Balcon [8.13]
Harmonie du Soir [3.55]
Le Jet d’eau [5.52]
Recueillement [5.09]

Susan Graham - soprano
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Yan Pascal Tortelier
rec December 2004, Studio 1, BBC Maida Vale Studios, London, United Kingdom
WARNER CLASSICS 2564 61938-2 [67.44]

During the short period between the late 19th century and the outbreak of the First World War French music underwent something of a transformation away from the Opera/ballet style of Gluck and Meyerbeer and followed the same sort of byways that had lead the French painters of the era to explore the aspects of light rather than object that lead to impressionism. Although the term is frequently used in musical contexts as well, especially when discribing the music of the composers represented in this recital, the important link between all of the composers here is the influence of Richard Wagner. Although the language and nuances of Ravel, Chausson and Debussy could hardly be different from that of Wagner, in the harmonic idioms of the German master lay the seeds of that distinctive French impressionistic harmonic language that is so colourfully represented in these works. Further, although Susan Graham is possessed of a smaller scale of voice than the average (if such a thing exists) Wagnerian soprano (smaller scale of everything, one could say...) in the intensity of dramatic poise in text, and the length of phrase with which she imbues this music, there is a clear resonance of the influence of Wagner’s vocal writing style.

This is clearly apparent in the opening song of Chausson’s Poeme de l’amour et de la mer which even occupies a Wagnerian scale in length. Susan Graham is intimately atuned to this repertoire and devotes much energy to carrying the line of the phrase, while ensuring that the words and individual notes are imbued with resonances of their own. It is impressive singing, of a richness that suits the somewhat melancholy, but always luxurious tenor of the time of composition of these works. She is well matched by the BBC Symphony, here under the recently retired Artistic Director of their sister orchestra, the BBC Philharmonic. Tortelier, French to his toe tips, has already recorded complete cycles of the music of several important early 20th century French composers, including Dutilleux and Roussel as well as Ravel and Debussy. He brings to the orchestra an intimate understanding of the constantly changing light and shade of this music. Especially when setting words, French composers of the period, while managing as mentioned above to write on a scale that is impressive in length, devoted much attention to the inner meaning of individual words, colouring these meanings not only with characteristically piquant harmony, but inimitably distinctive orchestration, often of the most delicate variations.

While Ravel’s Sheherazade songs as not as well known as Rimsky-Korsakov’s eponymous tone poem there is the same colourful orchestration, again impressively relayed by the BBC Symphony. Susan Graham brings more of the feeling of narrative to these works than to the dreamer Chausson poems but the richness of voice is still apparent.

The unusual work on this disc is the settings of Baudelaire by Debussy. Although the orchestrally accompanied song was very popular in Paris of the belle epoque Debussy only ever orchestrated one of these songs – Le Jet d’eau. The other’s are here recorded in orchestrations by John Adams, who has imitated the Debussy style very convincingly. The question that springs immediately to mind, however, is “Why four songs?” Debussy, of course, set Cinq Poemes de Charles Baudelaire. While it is known that Debussy was not one for going back over earlier work, unless paid handsomely to do so by a publisher, there is no explanation given as to the reasons for Adams’ missing song in this set. The four songs as orchestrated stand well as a group, and Adams’ orchestration stays within the limits of Debussy’s own model, except for a delicate scattering of percussion and a bass clarinet, but the fifth poem would have given this orchestral guise more of a connection to the original song cycle. After all, Debussy chose five songs deliberately. As in the earlier works Susan Graham is superb and Tortelier’s marshalling of the BBC Symphony looses nothing in being not Debussy’s own notes on the page. © Peter Wells

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Essential Carols
The Very Best of King's College Choir, Cambridge
David Wilcocks
2 CDs, Decca

It's that time of year again and every year we try to look at at least one CD of Christmas Carols. This year we get two CDs in the one package from the world-renowned King's College Choir from Cambridge University in the UK.

On these CDs we have a nice mix of general favourites and those which are not quite so widely known. One mistake that issuers sometimes make is to concentrate exclusively on what they regard as carols ill-treated by the passage of time. Sometimes they produce forgotten gems but quite often they were forgotten for a reason -- they weren't all that good.

In the general favourites line we have Hark! The herald angels sing, The first Nowell, Ding Dong! etc, Away in a manger, The Holly and the ivy, God rest ye merry, Gentlemen, and many, many more ... but no Good King Wencelas!

They are all lovingly performed without the excrescence of horrible added instrumentation. It is quite a nice set for the Christmas season. (Count K)

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Mahler, Berg

Gustav Mahler - Symphony No.4 
Berg - Sieben Fruehe Lieder (Seven Early Songs)
CD, Deutsche Grammophon

Berliner Philharmoniker
Claudio Abbado - conductor 
Renee Fleming - soprano solo
Guy Braunstein violin solo
(Recorded live in Berlin)
"The Symphony is the world! The Symphony must embrace everything!" (Gustav Mahler)

Gustav Mahler (1860 - 1911) was best known as one of the foremost conductors of his age during his lifetime. Today he is also remembered as one of the most important composers bridging the transition from romantic music in the nineteenth century to the music of the twentieth century, going on to inspire such composers as Shoenberg, Berg, Webern of the second Viennese school, as well as Shostakovich. He was born in Kaliste, Bohemia,into a Jewish family, but in 1897 decided to convert to Catholicism. This was due to the anti-semitism, rife in Vienna at the time, which had prevented him from receiving the post of conductor at the Vienna Court Opera. He was to work there for the next ten years, conducting for 9 months of the year in Vienna, then retreating to his small house in Woerthersee in Maiernigg. It was there that he composed many of his symphonies, including the fourth symphony on this recording (which was composed between 1899 and 1901, premiered in November 1901). The deaths of his parents, sister and suicide of his brother around this time led to an almost unhealthy preoccupation with death and had an obvious effect on his music (this type of tragedy seemed to become a trend throughout his lifetime). In 1902 he married the beautiful but difficult Alma Schindler who went on to become famous in her own right, (mainly for the various surnames she collected through marriage after Mahler's death!). His influences include Johann Sebastian Bach and those composers of the early Viennese School (Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert). He was also influenced by romantic nineteenth century composers such as Schumann, Mendelssohn and most importantly perhaps, Wagner. His earlier symphonies, including the fourth are dominated by "Des Knaben Wunderhorn" poems and often quote melodies from his own settings of these poems. He was deeply spiritual and had a profound respect for Nature, which is frequently reflected in his music. The fourth symphony seems to contain all of these elements, and is also remarkable for opening in B minor, being mainly in G major then ending in the "heavenly" key of E major with a solo soprano part with "Wir geniessen die himmlischen Freuden" (We enjoy Heaven's delights) from "Des Knaben Wunderhorn."

Alban Berg (1885 - 1935), a Viennese composer, had a deep respect and admiration for Mahler. He began his formal music training with the founder of twelve-tone music, Schoenberg. However, his "Sieben Fruehe Lieder," composed between 1905-1908, revised and orchestrated in 1928, does not show signs of the radical atonality and ciphers that he was to use in his later compositions, such as his second opera, "Lulu". The influence of Mahler is shown, not only in the rich romanticism of these songs, but also in the idea of using different orchestration for each of the songs, contributing to the structure of the composition.

As one would expect from a live recording with a combination of such highly distinguished artists as the Berlin Philharmoniker and Renee Fleming with the legendary Claudio Abbaudo, the recording, in my opinion at least, is brilliant. The orchestra is sensitive, and yet never afraid to create the more plucky, rustic and at times, parodic sounds of Austrian music, such as the "Laendler" in contrast to the light Viennese style, or indeed creating the volatile, brooding and threatening side (most likely due to Mahler's nearly unhealthy obsession with death), present throughout the symphony. The rich variety of orchestral sounds also show off Mahler's expert orchestration to great effect. Guy Braunstein's violin solo in the scherzo captured the wonderfully sarcastic nature of this movement. Finishing with Berg's songs, so clearly inspired by Mahler, compliments the programme extremely well. (M. North)

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Bartok, Concertos

Bela BARTOK (1881-1945)
Concerto for Orchestra [37.57]
Concerto for Two Pianos and Percussion [25.33]
Romanian Folkdances [6.34]
Heini Karkkainen, Paavali Jumppanen – pianos
Lassi Erkkila, Tim Ferchen - percussion
Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Sakari Oramo
rec September 2004, Kulttuuritalo Hall of Culture, Helsinki, Finland
WARNER CLASSICS 2564 61947-2 [70.42]

This all-Finnish production of Bartok’s most famous orchestral music is a rather traditional approach to recording production – big name conductor, well-established broadcasting orchestra and very traditional structure of repertoire. It is heartening to see Warner’s still taking this approach, appreciated by so many of the buying public, but not the cheapest alternative, in this day of doom-laden stories about the state of the classical music business.

Admittedly, there is no shortage of recordings of the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra or the Concerto for two Pianos and Percussion, so why the need for another new version? Presumably this has been the personal choice of Sakari Oramo, a conductor who really came to prominence when appointed as Sir Simon Rattle’s successor at the City of Birmingham Symphony. Many at the time thought him brave to try to fill such capacious shoes, but Oramo swiftly established his own agenda at the CBSO and maintained their level of excellence over so smooth a transition that he has rapidly become one of the classical music world’s most bankable conductors. In this association with the Finnish Radio Symphony there is further interest, as Oramo, who started out as a violinist, was this orchestra’s leader for some years before moving onto the podium. Since the 2003-4 season he has been their chief conductor. The Finnish Radio Symphony has a distinguished record in the recording studio and is especially adept at this period of early 20th century music. In this recording the colours of Bartok’s wonderfully luminous orchestration glow beautifully. The opening of the Concerto for Orchestra is almost non-existent in its intense pianissimo. Comparing this to the pungent bassoon, oboe and clarinet playing of the second movement and one begins to appreciate the range of timbre that Oramo can draw from such an experienced orchestra.

The Concerto for Two Pianos and Percussion dazzles in a different way. While there is still orchestral virtuosity the group of soloists dominate the work throughout. These are exceptional players. Both the Pianists and one of the Percussionists are Finns. The remaining percussionist, while American, has been playing with the Finnish Orchestra since 1977. The concerto is, of course, a re-working of one of Bartok’s mature masterpieces – its original form as the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion. In making the concerto version, Bartok adopted the lightest of touches, basically adding the orchestral textures as a cloak over the unchanged body of the sonata. The added richness given by features such as the held string chord that underpins the end of the slow introduction as it leads to the boisterous Allegro molto section provides an additional dimension to the otherwise rather hard-edged timbre of the solo group. This aspect of hardness is prevalent throughout, in some very vigorous, almost jazz-like touches in the piano parts and in moments of tremendous power in the percussion, as with the thunderous timpani of the opening of the Allegro in the first movement. The slow middle movement manages to combine orchestra and soloists in a way that does nothing to detract from the minimalist “night music” effect. This is the least effective peformance. It would be desirable to hear a greater sense of tightness between the two pianos, offset by the irregularity of the percussion interjections. When the movement starts to grow more active, there is more of a feeling of purpose, but this takes some time to achieve. Tremendous virtuosity is the hallmark of the finale, which sparkles from the outset. Oramo sets a cracking pace, especially for a movement marked Allegro ma non troppo. This is probably too fast for what Bartok intended, but the soloists are certainly up for it and the effect is undeniably spectacular.

The Romanian dances are products of the early days of Bartok’s exile in America. Obviously standing comparison with the Slavonic dances of Dvorak or the Hungarian dances of Brahms, these are very much in the same mould, with lush orchestrations and less of the trademark angularity of Bartok’s original works. The Finnish players rise to the occasion again and this short set of dances makes a fitting conclusion to this excellent disc. ©Peter Wells

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Baroque Christmas Album

The Baroque Christmas Album
John Elliot Gardiner, Paul McCreesh, Marc Minkowski, Trevor Pinnock
Various Artists
CD, Archiv Produktion

Here we have a selection of suitably selected Christmas music from the composers, Bach, Charpentier, Gabrieli, Schütz, Corelli, and Praetorious. Built on the mystery and majesty of Christ’s birth, the wonderfully thick textures, and contrapuntal melodies glide together in glorious orchestral, and choral harmony. The contrast across the album between orchestra and voice works perfectly for me, and I expect for the rest of us out there that enjoy period music.

Dare I say however that on the one hand, I haven’t come across many Baroque specific Christmas albums; this does feel like yet another ‘Christmas album’. Fantastic though it is; which does set it apart from the majority, this album displays similar glory and musicianship as in previous years, other albums along this theme have done. No disrespect to anyone involved in the making of this album, I can honestly say it is superbly put together. Having taken a course in Classical CD production two years running, I know how hard editing and compiling these CDs can be.

I feel that the title is the culprit.

To call it a Christmas album pigeonholes it into something that one might only ever listen to at this time of year. This is a great shame as it is musically suited to anytime of the year whatever your mood. So to all you Christmas album lovers out there, go for it. This is a fantastic compilation. And to all the rest of us, buy it for its excellence, and ignore the pigeonholing title. (E Walton)

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