Mstation Classical Reviews

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Sun, 29 Jan 2006

Pergolesi, La Serva Padrona

Giovanni Battista PERGOLESI (1710-1736)
La Serva Padrona 
Angelica Tuccari - soprano
Sesto Bruscantini - Baritone
Orchestra Lirica di Milano della RAI conducted by Alfredo Simonetto
rec 1950 and 1951, Milan and Turin - Mono Recordings
Warner Fonit 5050467-6755-2-0 [67.46]

One must admit that one is not really a fan of old recordings re-mastered and released on modern CD and first saw this version of Pergolesi's seminal intermezzo 'La Serva Padrona' with a certain sinking feeling. The norm with such discs is a combination of turgid tempi, bad intonation and singing that sounds like Wagner pudding with too many eggs in it. One of the features of such recordings is definitely present here, which is to say the bad intonation of the strings of the Milan radio orchestra of the early 1950s. The classic scratchy string sound, a combination of too many instruments per part for baroque music and the recording technology of the time, which never allowed much in the way of depth of sound is to blame.

However, there are actually a surprising number of enjoyable features in this disc. Obviously a ghastly orange-and-blue cover design is not one of them and would normally put this writer off buying the disc even before discovering that the recording is well over half a century old. But apart from this, the actual performance is surprisingly good. Italians doing their early opera in the 1950s have no good reputation and it is normally assumed that such works were "rediscovered" by the Englishmen such as Thurston Dart and Leyton Ring, but apparently in Milan they had a more-or-less continuous tradition of the performance of such works. The first thing that strikes one is the sprightly tempo of the opening aria. There are too many strings, of course, but they do play with verve and the singing of Sesto Bruscantini (one of the notable Italian Bass-baritones of the era) has a clarity and dexterity, combined with lovely richness of timbre that has been hard to hear again until the age of Bryn Terfel. Here, Bruscantini is excellently partnered by the soprano Angelica Tuccari - maybe a rather harsh voice, but full of the virtues of comic timing and wit that make Opera Buffa so much more fun than the serious versions of the genre. While one certainly misses the presence of proper continuo in the arias and duets a number such as Lo concoso, a quela occhietti, the duet at the end of the first 'act', relies so much on the comic interplay of voices that it seems not to actually matter too much.

In the recitatives there is the rather odd sound of piano continuo to accompany the singers, but even this is not as offensive as it could easily be because the piano is played fairly discretely and the recording quality almost gives it the timbre of an early fortepiano. Altogether, this is a recording that is much more fun than one would have thought likely.

The coupling is five arias from later operas, again sung by Sesto Bruscantini. These include the famous catalogue aria Madamina, il catalogo e questo from Mozart's Don Giovanni and further single movements from Bellini - La Sonnambula; Rossini - Il Turco in Italia; Berlioz - Damnation of Faust and Donitzetti - L'Elisir d'amore, the last and the Rossini being in duets with the soprano Alda Noni. The performances are variable, the Mozart being very good, the Berlioz rather lacklustre, but Sesto Bruscantini is excellent throughout and the disc therefore makes some impact by bringing this wonderful voice back to prominence. Whether the punter in the street, looking for a nice bit of baroque opera, is likely to go for this recording of La Serva Padrona is debateable, but Sesto Bruscantini aficionados, both of them, will probably want to hurry down to the CD shop.

(c) 2006 Peter Wells

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Mozart, symphonies 40, 41

W.A. Mozart, Symphony No. 40 in G minor,
Symphony No. 41 in C major "Jupiter"
Divertimento in D major
Wiener Philharmoniker
Riccardo Muti
from the Saltzburg Festival of 1991
DVD, Philips 

There will be a lot of Mozart around in 2006. It is the 250th anniversary of his birth and everyone from record labels to radio stations are doing something -- and why not? Mozart is one of the great figures of the Western Classical tradition ... all of which makes me wonder if there are people who listen only to Mozart. His output was prodigious and you could actually go for quite some time without repeating a piece ... and once you start taking different versions into account you would need more than the alloted human span to cover them.

The pieces on this DVD were recorded for television, in stereo, during the Saltzburg Festival of 1991. There is also Surround Sound available on this disc through the application of Emil Berliner Studio's Ambient Sound Imaging.

They are nice peformances too, and recent enough that the original bandwidth of the recordings didn't need to be gussied up for normal stereo. If you like to look at the orchestra at home as well as hear it, this DVD will do the trick. There is also a Mozart chronology and picture gallery. (Mr Phelps)

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Miles Davis ... sorta

ESP 2: A tribute to Miles
Live in Stuttgart
Randy Hall
Robert Irving III
Adam Holzman

I saw Miles Davis at the Village Vanguard in NYC when I was pretty young. How I got in I don't know as you were supposed to be twenty-one and I wasn't, and I looked about twelve. I was dressed in a blazer and tie. Maybe the doorman thought it was so bizarre that it wasn't really happening. In any case I was allowed in and was served a beer at the bar and I settled down to some small-group Miles. What he was doing then was a kind of cooler child of Bird -- of Beebop. Or maybe it was beefed up West Coast Cool. He blew sinuous torrents of sound and in the small audience people would end his phrases with "Yeah!". To a child it was also beyond good. You didn't need to know anything about music to know that this man was a master. And you didn't need to much about people to intuitively appreciate that the man was angry, unapproachable, and slightly adrift -- if the opposite of adrift is connected in a happy way.

Miles isn't on this DVD but a lot of his sidemen from his last years are. This tribute covers a particular side of Miles Davis -- the fusion side. The playing is wonderful and nicely recorded and it might set you to wondering about ties between Fusion and some modern electronica. (Baron K)

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Water Music, Music for the Royal Fireworks

G.F. Handel, Water Music, Music for the Royal Fireworks
Aradia Ensemble
Kevin Mallon

It's hard to imagine anyone who's had any exposure at all to classical music not having heard these pieces, and it's also hard to imagine just how many recordings there must be. It is actually one of the problems for people starting collections: which recording to choose? The one with the grooviest cover? Surely not! It takes time I'm afraid. While something like the Penguin book or Gramaphone Magazine might be helpful, you still need to know what you like. Once you know that, it is quite helpful to follow particular ensembles.

If you're wandering the shop looking for your first Water Music you might be tempted to walk past this -- it's from the cut price Naxos label and has their usual not-too-flashy cover. In fact it is very nicely done and is well worth a listen. (Baron K)

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Grieg, Franck

Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907)
Violin Sonata No 3 in c minor Op45  [21.36]
Antonin DVORAK (1841-1904)
Violin Sonatina in G major, B183 (Op100)  [18.21]
Cesar FRANCK (1822-1890)
Sonata for Violin and Piano in A major  [27.27]
Kai Gleusteen - Violin; Catherine Ordronneau - Piano
rec June 2003, CREAR, Argyll, Scotland.

There is something terribly trendy going on up in Argyll, but we'll do our best to ignore it and concentrate on the music. This disc from CREAR classics seems as much to be promoting the recording venue - a combination of studio and artist's retreat - overlooking the Isle of Jura on the west coast of Scotland. It does sound lovely from the extensive notes about the place in the booklet, but what the sculptures of Marko Kratohvil have to do with it is hard to grasp from the CD. His steel thing called "Interaction 1/04" is all over the CD booklet and he gets a bigger write-up, with large photo than the performers, which is odd, because you can't hear his sculpture anywhere, but that's sculpture for you.

Kai Gleusteen and Catherine Ordronneau, he Canadian, she French, perform a programme of three of the best pieces in the repertoire for Violin and Piano. The tempestuous opening of the Grieg totally belies his usual reputation as a gentle melodist, summed up by Debussy's dismissive comment about his music - "a pink bonbon, filled with snow" and the slow movement brings some ravishing sonorities to the fore. The finale is another large-scale movement in which both performers are required to bring not only virtuosity, but considerable power to bear. This is amongst the best of Grieg's chamber music and the performance is impressive, to say the least.

The Dvorak sonatina is also a well-known work and of a scale that belies the diminutive of its title. Gleusteen is in particularly fine form here, producing a sweet sound throughout, yet never having any problems in balance with the piano. Taking the photo of the performers on the back of the booklet as a guide the piano appears to be smaller than the conventional nine foot grand, although the notes do not mention what it is. It appears to be about a 6'6" grand; more a domestic than a concert sized instrument, but for recording purposes there is wisdom in this. The greater size required to carry the sound to the back of a concert hall is not a concern in the studio, and the possibilities of flexibility in balance in chamber music are greatly enhanced by a smaller piano.

Of course, the work that is always going to be the benchmark in any programme like this is the Franck - almost universally acclaimed as the greatest 19th century sonata for this combination of instruments. Interestingly, Franck styled it not as a sonata for violin and piano, as would be the norm for the period, but a sonata for piano and violin although the more common appellation is the one that appears here. The important thing is the balance of the roles within the duo, the piano is no mere accompanist here; witness the surging opening piano figures of the second movement (Allegro) not to mention the fact that it is the piano that also starts all the other movements. The violin is not subservient either, and Gleusteen's forward tone and languorous phrasing do not cast him in such a role. However, in this work it is the piano playing of Catherine Ordronneau that really shines. There is tremendous latent power in her left hand, but this is held exquisitely under control at all times. This is a first rate recording of first-rate performances by serious, but not heavy, musicians. There are many recordings of the Franck available, but the pairings here, both classics of the genre just as much as the Franck, are the stuff of programming that will last the test of time. The performances also are versions that this writer will be happy to hear, and has been happy to hear, repeatedly.

(c) 2006 Peter Wells

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Dukachev - Beethoven, Prokofiev, Rachminov

Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Sonata no 14 in c sharp minor "The Moonlight" [15.41]
Pyotr Il'yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
'The Seasons' Op37b 
No 1 (January - at the fireside) and No 11 (November - Troika) [7.44]
Morceau Op72 No5 in D [4.45]
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
20 Visions Fugitives Op22 Nos 1,7,10,6,11 & 17 [7.06]
10 Pieces from 'Romeo and Juliet' Op75 No10 [7.01]
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Variations on a theme of Corelli Op42 [17.18]
Prelude in d minor Op23 No3 [3.51]
Morceau de salon Op10 No3 [4.07]
Prelude in B flat major Op23 No2 [3.30]

rec July 2001, Royal Holloway, University of London, United Kingdom

The live recital on disc has become a popular format in recent years and this presentation from Dunelm Records of the distinguished Russian pianist Sergei Dukachev shows the format to good advantage. The programme, recorded in a recital at Royal Holloway College of the University of London in Egham, in the leafy Surrey suburbs of outer London, begins with a spirited Moonlight sonata in the finale of which we hear Dukachev's immaculate technique used to the advantage of the music's virtuosic requirements.

The rest of the programme is of Russian music, with a nice balance between heavyweight and lighter works. Rachmaninov's Variations on a theme of Corelli Op42 (actually variations on the old Spanish song La Folia on which Corelli wrote his own famous variations in the Op5 sonatas for violin and basso continuo) is one of the master pianist's greatest solo works, reinterpreting the variation form so beloved of baroque composers with all the style and elegance of Corelli, but with a substantial dose of romantic virtuosity and depth thrown in. This is complimented well by the darker colours of the B flat and d minor preludes from Op23 - Rachmaninov with his Russian hat on.

Tchaikovsky's piano pieces based on the twelve months of the year are not so frequently heard and do not have the levels of angst that we tend to associate with the terminally depressed Tchaikovsky, but there is much of charm in them. Dukachev's Troika starts a little ponderously, but the central lively section is full of delicate touches and carefully balanced between the hands.

Prokofiev's 20 Visions Fugitives Op22 are much shorter works and display less of the vigorous rhythm of his larger works, but throughout, there is that piquant harmonic language that makes Prokofiev so individual. These are tiny masterpieces given a sympathetic reading that does not try o make of them more than they are. At first glance, the inclusion of a piano rendition of part of the Romeo and Juliet ballet music is an odd exception, but No 10 Romeo and Juliet before parting inhabits the same gentle sound-world as the Visions Fugitives and pairs well with them. In all this is a commendable recital disc that bears repeated listening. Dukachev has no oddities and plays the music straight, albeit with superb technical control and a beautifully manicured tone. The appearance of the disc, in particular the booklet and back cover, have a somewhat home-made feel, not helped by the cheap paper on which the printing has been done, but this only detracts from the feel of the disc - the sound is consistently good.

(c) 2006 Peter Wells

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Charpentier, Lebegue

Music for the Virgin Mary
Marc-Antoine Charpentier
Concerto delle Donne
Alistair Ross
LP, Signum Classics

Signum Classics is one of a number of small classical labels that trust that they might get before you and into your collections by choosing their projects well and putting out a superior product. Good luck to them all I say.

This CD is "Celebrating 300 years of Charpentier" and more specifically on this disc, his works that relate to the Church - the Roman Catholic Church of ancien regime France that is.

The liner notes (in the usual ridiculously small font) say that there was a dichotomy at the time, in that those of the court spent their time on many frivolities but that they also spent a great deal of time in religious observance. I think one could possibly make too much of this. While it was true that the devout did (and still do) spend a lot of time on this activity, it was also true that it was quite common also for people to chat during services and generally wander about.

The music collected here is really very nice and mostly concists of vocal works with an organ backing. It was recorded at Notre Dame, Rozay-en-Brie, a little to the east of Paris. The organ there dates from 1690 and was played by Francois Couperin. The whole thing is also very nicely recorded, the voices particularly.

The cover art won't be to everyone's taste but there is a nice photo of the organ on the inside. It is quite interesting that some churches in some areas survived the revolution quite well.

Oh yes, I've demoted myself. Some years ago when I started to do these reviews I adopted "Count" in a somewhat jokey way and it has annoyed me ever since. Now, it being a New Year (and I hope it is a very good one for you ... and me too) I shall correct things, well, this thing. (Baron K)

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Bach, trio-sonatas

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
The Triosonatas BWV525 -530
Trio Lezard
Jan Creutz - Clarinet; Stephane Egeling - Cors Anglais; Stefan Hoffmann - Bassoon
rec May 2004, Michaelskirche, Reichelsheim, Germany. Super Audio CD

The Bach Organ trio-sonatas have been a happy hunting ground for chamber music groups for decades. They have been rearranged for just about every conceivable combination of baroque forces, from recorder and obligato harpsichord to flute, violin and theorbo continuo and then into some more bizarre areas - koto ensembles and guitar trios. Trio Lezard go rather against the grain of baroque habit by arranging the trios for wind trio employing resolutely modern instruments, in the case of the Cors Anglais, an instrument which had not even been invented when Bach was working. However, they also keep pretty much to the sort of textures and timbres that Bach envisaged on the organ. Essentially, the upper voice (here played on the clarinet) is slightly higher in tessitura than the middle voice (here the cors anglais) while the bass part was originally intended for the pedals and therefore is rather simpler in melodic structure than the upper parts. Looked at in theory like this the timbre of such a group should sound too much like a modern wind trio - think Jean Francaix for example - but in practice this isn't the case. Although employing modern instruments the Trio Lezard have not ignored the studies of their baroque contemporaries and play with sprightly tempi and plenty of attention to the small groupings of notes, not just to the longer phrase structures. In particular the bassoon playing of Stefan Hoffmann seeks to replicate the lightness of German 18th century organ pedal technique, played with toes only and therefore resulting in a certain detachment of the notes in a bass line. This gives to the music something of the dance-like aspect that is always a feature of even the most serious baroque music and the wind timbres have more than a passing resonance with the reed timbres of a baroque organ.

These are very enjoyable performances and the recording is first-rate, the generous, but not over-indulgent acoustic of the Michaelskirche in Reichelsheim providing a setting of appropriate bloom, well caught by the engineers. The more worrying aspect is that this Super Audio CD hybrid, advertised on the cover as "plays on any CD player" worked perfectly well in this reviewers Denon main system CD player, but would not register when played in the computer, and came up on the DVD player as "no disc". Given that SACD technology is supposedly the latest thing, and a format for which we are all supposed to be abandoning our old CD players to re-purchase with the latest equipment, this writer doesn't think that's good enough. More and more the SACD format is looking like a last-ditch attempt to stave off the ever increasing market share going to various downloadable formats and looks more like some of the attempts to protect the LP in the early 1980's - remember the short lived "Long-playing 45rpm"? The format may work well in the SACD machinery, but a basic CD format still plays in the computer - not the best way to listen to a disc admittedly, but important for many people who like a CD in the office while they are working. A format that claims to play on "any CD player" but actually doesn't is not going to endear itself to the market. These fine performances, in imaginative interpretations, really deserve better than that. (c) Peter Wells 2005

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