Mstation Classical Reviews

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Sat, 02 Sep 2006

Vivaldi Cello

Antonio Vivaldi, Cello Concertos
Jonathan Cohen
The King's Consort
Robert King
LP, Hyperion

Vivaldi wrote some twenty-eight cello concertos. He was a famous violin virtuoso and a better than passable viol player but was not known to have played the cello at all.

The use of the cello as a solo instrument started in Northern Italy in the late 1600s but it was the Venetians who brought it on from simple parts to the more complex found in these concertos. For those who think the Four Seasons is a little too laden with parlour tricks and don't know much of his other works, this might be a fine place to discover his graceful phrasings. It's also a good place to discover that the cello is not necessarily a lugubrious voice of angstful doom.

This is a nice production, as you'd expect from Hyperion, and the playing is first class. (Baron K)

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Giuseppe Verdi, various
2 CD's, Naxos

Hmmmm, interesting. Nowhere on the cover does it say who actually sang or performed in the orchestra. And nowhere in the notes either. There are references to the CD's of the full recordings but I don't imagine anyone will be bothered to do that.

The songs, everything from Rigoletto to Aida, are not badly performed at all, and are nothing to be ashamed of and the main voices will sound quite familiar. Is there a new market out there for people who don't care who's performing? Hmmmm, again. (Baron K)

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Toru Takemitsu, A Flock Descends into the Pentagonal
Garden, Spirit Garden, Dreamtime
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
MArin Alsop
LP, Naxos

Toru Takemitsu (1930-1996) wrote Western music which was often inspired by the gardens of his homeland, and in one piece here, by the Australian aboriginal concept of Dreamtime.

The music is very much rooted in the academic music of that time (and still now in some institutions) which either fully embraced serialism or was looking for a way past but still retaining the jagged rhythmns and interesting tonalities.

Takemitsu saw himself as a conservative with a love for melody -- but don't get the wrong idea, there is melody but of that certain type described. If you like that, you'll like this. (Baron K)

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Shostakovich and Schnittke, Cello

Shostakovich and Snittke
Cello Sonatas
Alban Gerhardt
Steven Osborne
LP, Hyperion

On this disc are Shostakovich's Sonata in D minor for cello and piano, three pieces from Alfred Schnittke including Sonata No 1 for cello and piano and eight further smaller pieces from Shostakovich.

The first piece was premiered in 1934 and was thought conservative at the time, considering what Shostakovich had been up to a little earlier. He was, of course, within the Soviet Russian system - a system that had its official likes and dislikes, and woe betide you if you went on the wrong side of the fence. As it happens, Shostakovich had been officially censured a little before the cello sonata.

For the most part, most of this CD is for the lovers of darker cello moments. Sprightly is not a word that springs to mind here. (Baron K)

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Dmitri Shostakovich, Violin concerto No.1
Violin sonata
Leila Josefowicz
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Sakari Oramo
John Novacek
LP, Warners

You probably knew that the big orchestras have what they call freelancers who are hired for short periods of a concert or two or a recording and then sent on their way. I didn't until quite recently (Hello Franzisca, I hope Berlin has been nice!) and I'm not sure I like the idea much. The idea of a big orchestra is that its members are adequately rehearsed and taken care of financially and otherwise. But here we have a kind of outsourcing whereby the musician is paid less and the orchestra uses its name to promote projects like this. I think it stinks. The reason I mention it is that this orchestra is involved in these practices.

In another review this month we looked at some Shostakovich cello works and here we have two pieces for violin. They are certainly not any happier than the cello pieces but they are, of course, in a higher range at least. The concerto is a regular part of the repertoire and deemed a masterpiece whereas the sonata has quite a few detractors.

Leila Josefowicz certainly handles it all with aplomb and a little flash as well and the recording is first class. (Baron K)

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Mozart Symphonies

Mozart, Symphonies 40 and 41
Les Musiciens du Louvre
Marc Minkowski
LP, Archiv Production

Here are two of Mozart's most famous and most performed symphonies. Funnily enough, for those who think of "the light and airy grace" of Mozart, these two are not really examples of that: They are more on the cusp to Beethoven and the Romantics. The popularity is thus easy to explain -- modern audiences are mostly in thrall to the Romantics. If you, like me, consider that they are largely pompous and overblown, and make too much noise altogether, then there are still reasons to have these two in your collection.

What are they? Sorry, it's just a rule. You should have got the card with the rule on it when you bought your first classical CD. There are other rules as well which I'll reveal in due course. Beyond stupid rules, there is also the fact that these pieces are examplars of skill in the art of composition, and besides, they are not quite Romantic.

Also, Les Musiciens du Louvre (who actually have Grenoble as their base) have produced a recording with great panache so if you already have this (and some performances are turgid) you should have a listen and see what you think. (Baron K)

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Josefowicz Recital


CD 1
Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
Theme and Variations [10.20]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Violin Sonata in G major [18.32]
Mark GREY (b.1967)
San Andreas Suite for solo violin [11.51]

CD 2
Esa-Pekka SALONEN (b.1958)
Larchen Verlernt for solo violin [10.40]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Violin sonata No 10 in G major Op96 [29.16]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Scherzo in c minor [5.19]
Leila Josefowicz – violin; John Novacek - piano
rec Jan 2005, American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York, USA
WARNER CLASSICS 2564 61948-2 [2 CDs] 

This is a varied recital programme that Leila Josefowicz and John Novak had been touring for some time in the USA before recording it in early 2005. Two well-filled discs make for a substantial exploration of the violin and piano repertoire, but whether the programme works as well in the recorded format as it would on stage is perhaps rather more questionable. There is certainly no question about the quality of the performances or of the musicianship. Josefowicz rapidly established herself as one of the world’s outstanding violinists after making a debut at Carnegie Hall, New York, at the age of only 16. She does have the advantage of a 1724 Guarneri violin to play with, an instrument of incomparable richness and beauty of tone. Conversely John Novacek is one of those pianists whose name is not necessarily well-known, but whose biography reads like a Who’s who of the great and the good in classical music, having co-operated with, accompanied or indeed composed for just about everybody from Isaac Stern to Diana Ross. Clearly the empathy between these two has built up over several years of performance together and their recording illustrates the perfection of the concept of chamber music. In the Beethoven sonata there is an intimacy of performance that draws the listener in. The Brahms Scherzo that ends the programme has something of the feel of the encore about it, but the performance is so well attuned, both to the music and between the players, that the serious importance of the work is clear as well.

More challenging is the inclusion of several contemporary works that possibly loose something in the recording process where the immediate communication of live performance is impossible to replicate. These are all good works, but one wonders about the juxtaposition of the two unaccompanied works by Mark Grey and Esa-Pekka Salonen, one at the end of the first disc, the other following immediately at the start of the second. The Grey San Andreas Suite was written for Josefowicz, but the work itself seems to wander somewhat through a range of voices and styles without coming to any apparent conclusions. The obsession with rhythmic complexity that is so beloved of modern composers makes an appearance, but without appearing to have much to say. The Salonen is more successful a work in this respect, but still makes a considerable demand on the listener’s faculties that would be much easier to achieve in a live situation. Nonetheless, Josefowicz’s performance shows all the dazzle and control for which she is famed.

Early 20th century works open the recital, the great sonata in G by Maurice Ravel being the highlight of the first disc. Once again, there is a tightness of ensemble and intention demonstrated between these two players at every level. Although styled here as Violin Sonata in G this is really one of those works that should be called Sonata for piano and violin thus underlining more clearly the true relationship between the parts. The Messiaen variations will not be to everybody’s taste, but this is music that is full of luminous colour, captured here with wonderful clarity.

Informative and detailed booklet notes accompany this double disc, spoiled only by a cover portrait of Josefowicz in a dreadful retro-seventies green bucket chair on a purple carpet and wearing pink snakeskin shoes against a random design cream and purple curtain. The cover is already starting to look dated. Fortunately the music within will stand the test of time rather better.

© Peter Wells 2006

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Gounod, Faust

Charles Gounod, Faust
Francisco Araiza, Ruggero Raimondi
Gabriella Benackova, Walton Gronroos
Orchester der Weiner Staatsoper
Chor der Weiner Staatsoper
Erich Binder
Directed by Ken Russell
2 DVD's, Deutsche Grammophon

Here we have 2 DVD's of sumptious opera directed by Ken Russell who also made features on Liszt, Mahler, and Tchaikovsky as well as a TV thing on Elgar and something else on Andrew Lloyd Weber.

The production date of this Faust was 1985. There are a few things finding their way out of the vaults and onto DVD, and why not? Some projects are more deserving than others but this strikes me as one of the deserving ones as a great deal of attention had been paid to the visuals in the first place. Where someone just set up a camera at the front, the results are not always very interesting.

Gounod's well-known opera of the story of a suicidal philospher making a pact with the devil is more than ably performed and recorded here and is well worth a look for those who like this genre of opera. (Baron K)

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Bruch, Violin Concerto

Max Bruch, Violin Concerto No. 1
Konzertstuck, Op.84
Romance, Op.42
Maxim Fedotov
Russian Philharmonic Orchestra
Dmitri Yablonski
LP, Naxox

Once rivalling Brahms in fame, Bruch became famous for his violin compositions and was at height of his powers in the late 19th century. He worked in Koblenz, Sonderhausen, Berlin, and Bonn, after being born in Cologne. He died in Berlin in 1920.

This is the sort of music that classical music FM stations love to program. It is rich and velvety with long melodic lines and a certain sort of sadness that many people love.

Maxim Fedotov plays in a very Romantic sort of way as well which suits quite admirably but does make one wonder how much vibrato is the "right" amount. (Baron K)

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Bella Donna: Courtly Love

various, Bella Donna: The medieval woman: 
Lover, Poet, Patroness and Saint
Mara Kiek
Stevie Wishart
LP, Helios

Eleanor of Aquitane ruled from Poitiers in the early 12th century and it is perhaps no too surprising that female troubadors might have been given a shot at this court. This collection of songs comes from manuscripts in the Peirpont Morgan library in NYC and from the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris.

It's a nice collection too and Mara Kiek has a appropriately variable voice that sometimes has an edge and is otherwise smooth as a silk pillow. There are tales of absent crusaders and unfaithful lovers and powerful love. In the background are an array of period instruments.

And now for some wild boar and a bucket of burgundy. (Baron K)

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Beethoven String Quartets

Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
String Quartet in E flat Op 126 [33.43]
String Quartet in a minor Op 132 [41.16]
The Hagen Quartet
rec Nov 2003 [Op 132] and Mar 2004 [Op 127], Schloss Mondsee and Minnesangersaal, Wiesloch, Germany
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 00289 477 5705 [75.07]

A well-filled late Beethoven disc here. This is the sort of modern performance that will easily find a place on the collector’s shelves. The Hagen quartet (Lukas, Veronika and Clemens Hagen and Rainer Schmidt) have established such a reputation for seriousness that this music is eminently suitable for them. The recording quality is classic Deutsche Grammophon stuff, warm and spacious with each of the instrumental lines clearly defined within a whole of great sonic flavour. The opening of the finale of the Op 132 quartet creeps up on the listener, without giving a hint of the turbulence that will be very shortly unleashed. In both works the slow movements are far-and-away the most substantial and the Hagens play these with appropriate gravitas and substance, but without loosing sight of the melodic aspects also.

This whole nature of late Beethovenian thinking has been examined in endless detail elsewhere, and the works become no less surprising on repeated listenings. However, there is an aspect with which this writer would take issue in the conventional approach to this music. The word that is almost invariably used to describe the late quartets is “difficult”. These are supposedly “difficult” music to understand. Personally one thinks this un-helpful to anybody who is not familiar with this music. It is no more “difficult”, in terms of the enjoyment to be gained from the listening experience, than any of Mozart’s chamber works, than Poulenc’s or Messiaen’s song, indeed, than Handel’s Italian operas.

The listener who may be unfamiliar with late Beethoven, indeed who may be unfamiliar with the whole string quartet of even the whole chamber music genre should not shy away from a recording like this because of preconceived notions of incomprehensibility. This music just requires the listener to pay attention and to let Beethoven do the talking. It is beautiful stuff – far more enjoyable that much other Beethoven; one thinks of the over-vaunted and bombastic 9th symphony of the same period – and these performances are easily comparable to the great interpretations of the past.

© Peter Wells 2006

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Tomaso ALBINONI (1671-1751)
6 Sonate da chiesa Op. 4 
12 Trattenementi Armonici per camera Op. 6
The Locatelli Trio 
rec Nov 1991 & Jan 1992, Cologne, Germany
HYPERION DYAD CDD22048 (two discs) [79.40] & [79.40]

Hyperion’s Dyad series presents the purchaser with a good two-discs-for-the-price-of-one reissue option. These recordings were originally made in co-operation with the Cologne regional state broadcaster WDR [Westdeutscher Rundfunk] and issued go together well as a mixed package of Opp 4 and 6. There is little enough stylistic difference between the two publications, all adopting the four movement slow-fast-slow-fast pattern established by Corelli and standard as format for the serious sonata da chiesa structure throughout the baroque.

Albinoni is a well enough known name, but it is interesting here to listen to some of his serious chamber music. He has been tainted in many minds over recent years by the likes of Famous Albinoni Adagios and compilation discs of the same ilk, which generally present pretty turgid performances of parts of the orchestral works. To the early 18th century Italian composer the sonata and it’s closely related trio-sonata form (generally of two violins and basso continuo) represented the apogee of compositional craftsmanship, as well as the entree to the world of published composition. In these works Albinoni lavishes a wealth of inventive material, carefully balanced between melodic lyricism and flamboyant virtuosity. These performances by the Locatelli Trio (Elizabeth Wallfisch – violin; Richard Tunnicliffe – cello and Paul Nicholson – harpsichord) show a profound understanding of the subtleties that are inherent in this juxtaposition. The virtuosity is apparent, but never obvious and the beauty of Wallfisch’s violin sound is impressive.

Of course, this is all on instruments of the period, so the richness of the violin sound is quite different to that of the modern instrument. There is still debate about this, although one often fails to see why there should be. The thinner, suppler tone of the gut-strung instrument is so obviously the right accent for the voice of Albinoni’s music. Likewise, the continuo team of Tunnicliffe and Nicholson supports the solo line, but appreciates the importance of the bass line as a duet function in this period of music. Throughout, the balance of these functions is kept in play. It is also indicative of the attention to detail that, although the discs represent over 2 ½ hours of music the programme structure has carefully combined major and minor key works, resulting in a pleasant flow of tonalities, although the range of keys in which Albinoni writes is necessarily limited to those in common use at the time; nothing strays beyond two sharps or flats, except for a singe sonata in the (for the time) distant key of c minor [disc 1, tracks 25-28], and yet there is no feeling of monotony.

The Locatelli Trio no longer work as an ensemble, which is a shame, as they were one of the English groups that were seminal through the 80’s and early 90’s in taking the performance of this sort of small scale baroque music to a higher plane of excellence in performance. These recordings will remain definitive for many years and it is good to see them brought out in this combined format.

© Peter Wells 2006

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