Recommended

On Record



Like They Used To
Herbert von Karajan
1960s
(Deutsche Grammophon) (82 CDs)
Speaking to the popularity of legendary Austrian conductor Herbert von Karajan (1908–1989), violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter told Listen (Vol. 3, No. 1) that "the refinement of playing, of listening to each other and being attuned to each other is something we do not find anymore because of practical circumstances: the rehearsal time today is just very different from the seventies and the eighties." The same, one imagines, went for the sixties, the featured decade in Deutsche Grammophon's latest crosscut of the colossal Karajan oeuvre. I will go ahead and guarantee that you will both hear and appreciate the result of all those extra hours of HvK–led sectional rehearsals that players of the Berlin Philharmonic poured into the decade's recordings. Eighty two CDs (original LP covers plus original LP length!) comprise the maestro's 1960s orchestral (non-operatic) recordings. The set includes the celebrated 1961–62 Beethoven symphony cycle; the Brahms cycle; orchestral works by Bartók, Berlioz, Bruckner, Debussy, Haydn, Mozart, Ravel, Schubert, Sibelius, Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Richard Strauss, Tchaikovsky, et al; a big ol' book; some clever replicas of recording forms from five of the LPs within; and a large, sturdy cardboard box. I have jettisoned the box. — Ben Finane


Wagner in the Future
Richard Wagner
Parsifal
Poul Elming, tenor; et al
Staatskapelle Berlin
Daniel Barenboim, conductor
(EuroArts) (DVD)

In this production of Parsifal, stage director Harry Kupfer sets the work in a metallic, protected future in which to get "elsewhere" one must pass through a gigantic, circular door. It is a cold, dark world and the only salvation is the interaction between people. Poul Elming, a strapping Danish baritone-turned-tenor, is remarkable in the title role. Waltraud Meier remains the Kundry of our time, and this, her third DVD, is her best. Equally fine is the understated performance of John Tomlinson as Gurnemanz, early in his career and in his vocal prime. Daniel Barenboim's affinity for this music is well known from his 1990 Teldec recording; here he takes eleven minutes off that reading with no loss of gravitas. Picture and sound are superb. — Robert Levine


Nimble Grieg
Edvard Grieg
String Quartet in G minor (arr Tognetti) and other works
Australian Chamber Orchestra
Richard Tognetti, conductor
(BIS)(SACD)

Tognetti's arrangement of Grieg's String Quartet in G minor really is as good as any. His arrangement of "Erotikk," from the Lyric Pieces, is charming, effective and rather more sensual than the keyboard original. The Two Elegiac Melodies are touching, fluid and less heavy in these performances by the Australian Chamber Orchestra than when played by larger forces, but the highlight of the disc is the Holberg Suite. Even though it has been done to death, this version stands out for the vivacious charm and witty phrasing of its Praeludium and for the rustic brilliance of the concluding Rigaudon. — David Hurwitz


Schwarz-Schilling
Reinhard Schwarz-Schilling
Violin Concerto, Partita, Polonaise
Kirill Troussov, violin
Staatskapelle Weimar
José Serebrier, conductor
(Naxos)

Like Walter Braunfels, Wolfgang Fortner and Klaus Amadeus Hartmann, Reinhard Schwarz-Schilling was one of the many secondary victims of the Third Reich and Europe's subsequent shift in music ideology. The postwar environment wasn't without opportunities — conductors Celibidache, Jochum and Keilberth repeatedly performed Schwarz-Schilling — but for all their beauty and craft, his works didn't enter the repertoire. The expansive, orchestral Partita channels Bach through Schwarz-Schilling's postromantic vernacular; for the implacable Violin Concerto the tone darkens to a more rigorous beauty. The indefatigable José Serebrier leads a sumptuoussounding Staatskapelle Weimar; soloist Kirill Troussov is persuasive in demonstrating his and Schwarz-Schilling's qualities. — Jens F. Laurson


Frangtastic
Carl Nielsen, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Vilde Frang, violin
Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra
Eivind Gullberg Jensen, conductor
(EMI)

The Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto is a rite of passage for young violinists, and Norwegian violinist Vilde Frang is twenty-six, so here we are. But even a listener unaware of her heritage could detect the amiable bouncing lilt that permeates this violinist's folksy phrasing, grooming the coat of Tchaikovsky's warhorse until it shines. Fellow Scandinavian Carl Nielsen, when composing his Violin Concerto, confessed that he was seeking a work that was "eventful, popular, and brilliant without being superficial" and so it is, illuminated by Frang's ruddy attack and attention to narrative. The Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra offers more than support. — B.F.


Beyond Ragtime
Scott Joplin
Treemonisha
Anita Johnson, soprano; Frank Ward, Jr., bass-baritone
Paragon Ragtime Singers and Orchestra
Rick Benjamin, conductor
(New World Records)

Rick Benjamin's reconstruction of Scott Joplin's lone surviving opera from the existing vocal/piano score is nothing less than a revelation of historical research and musicology. Aided by surviving Joplin orchestrations, Benjamin sought to replicate the theater pit-band aesthetic with which Joplin was familiar. The swift, light instrumental textures liberate Joplin's gorgeous vocal lines, imparting a conversational rather than histrionic quality that befits both the musical style and the still-relevant moral of Joplin's self-penned libretto: that education, rather than superstition, provides a pathway out of poverty. — Jed Distler


Tempting Trios
Karl Goldmark, Hans Gál, Alexander Zemlinsky
Piano Trios
Thomas Albertus Irnberger, violin; Evgeni Sinaiski, piano; Attilia Kiyoko Cernitori, cello
(Gramola) (SACD)

We're at the beginning of a greatly desirable Hans Gál renaissance, and so his piano trio drew me to this recording from Vienna's enterprising Gramola label. Bending and twisting with summery delight, the ensemble makes no bones about Schubert and Brahms as its musical idols. Zemlinksy's Op. 3 (with violin instead of clarinet) is of darkly Brahmsian beauty, but the real bonbon is Karl Goldmark's contribution, an earworm-in-waiting. Upon the third hearing, his trio sounds as if you've known it all your life — or should have. The performances are searing. — J.F.L.


Ferocious Energy
Leos Janácek
Vec Makropulos
Angela Denoke, Raymond Very, Peter Hoare, Jurgita Adamonyte, Johan Reuter, et al
Vienna Philharmonic
Vienna State Opera Chorus
Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor
(C Major) (Blu-ray/DVD)

The Vienna Philharmonic was in rare form at the 2011 Salzburg Festival, which paid dividends in Janácek. This Makropulos Case has sweep and drama and ferocious energy, sometimes sardonic wit, then chilling severity. Salonen creates an arc from the beginning to the harshly cackling, then Puccini-esque, lyrical, brassy finale. Angela Denoke as Emilia Marty, a.k.a. Elina Makropulos, is outstanding in every way. Christoph Marthaler's direction, Anna Viebrock's sets and the period costumes are full of ambience straight out of a Kafka play and succeed in making Janácek's magnificent music work on the audience in its direct way. — J.F.L.


Rott's Return
Hans Rott
Symphony in E major, Suite for Orchestra in B-flat major
Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra
Paavo Järvi, conductor
(RCA )

Finally, a label — RCA — has released the Frankfurt RSO and Paavo Järvi's 2010 performance of Hans Rott's grand symphony. The story of composer and work [see Listen Vol. 3, No. 4] is as fascinating as the ebullient music. Järvi has channeled his enthusiasm for the youthful Wagnerian– Brucknerian–proto-Mahlerian symphony into a stupendous performance, while mindful of its weaknesses (tonal balance, an excess of triangle). The fact that he couples the symphony with a world-premiere recording of Rott's unfinished, reconstructed First Orchestral Suite makes this release only more exciting for lovers of over-the-top romantic orchestral works. — J.F.L.


Lean and Colorful
Claude Debussy
Images, La Mer and other works
Royal Scottish National Orchestra and Chorus
Stéphane Denève, conductor
(Chandos)

This is Debussy in the great French tradition, with lean strings and prominent, colorful winds, a touch of tangy vibrato in the brass. The result is marvelous. Debussy orchestrates in layers, and however fuzzy or "impressionistic" the resultant sonority, these layers should — and do — remain distinct. This means that woodwind timbres must often balance the strings, as they do in this performance of Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, with tellingly supple results. Jeux, that miracle of slithery half-tints and suggestions, really speaks in this performance; it becomes a genuine dance drama rather than a mere abstraction. And as for La Mer, well, it's just exciting as hell. — D.H.


Live Baroque
Georg Philipp Telemann
Flavius Bertaridus
Maîte Beaumont, alto; et al
Academia Montis Regalis
Alessandro de Marchi, conductor
(Deutsche Harmonia M undi)

Flavius Bertaridus, Telemann's only surviving opera seria, takes as its subject the titular protagonist's fight for the throne of the medieval kingdom of Lombardy as well as the heart of his wife, Rodelinda. This live recording reveals Flavius to be an engaging opera in the Italianate style of contemporary Handel (if sung in a more weighty German). Bass Antonio Abete endows Bertaridus's rival, Grimoaldus, with a commanding presence, but the stand-out is alto Maîte Beaumont in the title role, who boasts a luxurious tone that is capable of shape-shifting from dark to light. Under the baton of Alessandro de Marchi, the Academia Montis Regalis is crisp and clean and keeps us moving forward. — B.F.


de Boeck debut
August de Boeck
Piano Concerto, Thérogine de Méricourt Prelude, Francesca Orchestral Suite
Jozef de Beenhouwer, piano
Janácek Philharmonic Orchestra
Ivo Venkov, conductor
(Phaedra)

This ear-opening orchestral CD contains unheardof beauties — literally and metaphorically — from de Boeck, including a thrilling piano concerto transcribed from two-manual "Hans-Piano" (!) to standard piano by its performer, Jozef de Beenhouwer, and a large, forty-minute, high-romantic orchestral suite from the forgotten opera Francesca. The latter easily makes up in beauty for what it lacks in originality. The horns of the Janácek PO are not world-class, and while the playing is expert, it would be nice to hear this music in even better performances. But then, the Cleveland or Bavarian Radio orchestras don't bother to play de Boeck. Yet. — J.F.L.


Diabelli Delivered
Ludwig Van Beethoven
Diabelli Variations, et cetera
Andreas Staier, piano
(Harmonia Mundi)

Andreas Staier prefaces Beethoven's Diabelli Variations with Anton Diabelli's C major Waltz, followed by eight delightful, contrasting variations on the waltz by composers whom Diabelli invited to contribute one variation apiece for the original benefit anthology. Next, Staier improvises a Beethoven-like interlude that leads right into the most stimulating periodinstrument Diabelli Variations recording on the market. Staier's unerring tempo relationships, angular phrasing, strong sense of drama, stinging accents and grand cumulative sweep add up to an interpretation that is painstakingly detailed without sacrificing the music's grand design. Every note comes alive with meaning and purpose, including Staier's spontaneous flourishes and whimsical changes of voicing on the repeats. — J.D.


Musical Sunshine
Eduard Franck
Roman Carnival Overture, Op. 21 and other works
Christiane Edinger, violin
Württemberg Philharmonic Reutlingen
Ola Rudner, conductor
(Audite)

Eduard Franck was an ingenious composer whose chamber music has repeatedly been championed by the Audite label and Franck-veteran violinist Christiane Edinger. Now they turn their attention to Franck's orchestral output, including a rustic-operatic overture that stays comically true to the clichés promised by its title, "Roman Carnival." It's followed by a gorgeous miniature violin concerto with a simple, memorably charming tune. As for the Orchestral Fantasy, the music has a genial, La-Z-Boy quality about it and is, yes, a touch on the harmless side. But when it's as well done as here, what's wrong with musical sunshine and cotton candy? — J.F.L.


Bruckner Completed
Anton Bruckner
Symphony No. 9 (four-movement version)
Berlin Philharmonic
Simon Rattle, conductor
(EMI )

The finale of Bruckner's Ninth in this version lasts six hundred fifty-three bars, of which ninety-six are completely conjectural, having been filled in by the editorial team of Samale, Phillips, Cohrs and Mazzuca. Bruckner left four hundred forty bars in score and one hundred seventeen bars in sketch. This is a lot of authentic Bruckner, but the numbers remain deceptive. There are moments that sound unquestionably idiomatic. Others, equally "idiomatic" technically speaking, are simply unconvincing. Both Simon Rattle and the ensemble do some excellent work, and Rattle deserves credit for having conceived the interpretation so as to project the work as a genuine, four-movement symphony. Whether or not you find the finale completely satisfying, Rattle's view of how it fits into the symphony's larger scheme is surely the right one. Ultimately, then, this is a release that no Bruckner fan can afford to miss. — D.H.


Purcell Rocks
Henry Purcell
Love's Madness
Dorothee Mields, soprano
Lautten Compagney Berlin
Wolfgang Katschner, conductor
(Carus)

How much can an early-music recording rock? "Rock"? Why, is that appropriate? Is it in good taste? If "good taste" means approvingly nodding to the sounds of musicke from an armchair, then no. That's not what Dorothee Mields and Lautten Compagney do with songs of Purcell and contemporaries; they stick to text and music, but also channel its earthy character of music-as-entertainment. From "Bedlam Boys," where the Jewish harp hops ahead like an animated flea, to the heartbreaking beauty of the orchestral "With drooping wings," there isn't a moment that doesn't touch deeply. — J.F.L.


Glorious Gens
Hector Berlioz, Maurice Ravel
Various works
Véronique Gens, soprano
Orchestre National des Pays de la Loire
John Axelrod, conductor
(Ondine)

Berlioz's Les Nuits d'été and Ravel's Shéhérazade, old discmates, are splendidly paired here. Véronique Gens' deft handling of the poetry pays major dividends in Shéhérazade. Her unexaggerated feeling of wonderment is ably seconded by conductor John Axelrod's colorful accompaniments. Gens beautifully captures Ravel's delicately etched vocal lines and I can't help but think how much it helps to have a native speaker take the part. What makes this disc particularly desirable is the presence of Herminie, an early cantata by Berlioz that's almost always passed over; the work is compellingly sung by Gens and conducted with conviction. Gens' voice is captured in this recording with truly striking naturalism. — D.H.


Evocative Ambience
Claude Debussy
Préludes, Trois Nocturnes, Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune
Alexei Lubimov, piano
Alexei Zuev, piano
(ECM )

Debussy's twenty-four Préludes, composed from 1909 to 1912, can seem less like music than magic — the tonal equivalent of pulling a rabbit out of a hat, artifice that upends our idea of what is possible. As with most things magical, or musical, precision is vital; but so is atmosphere. Alexei Lubimov has recorded the Préludes on two period pianos: a 1925 Bechstein for Book I and a 1912 Steinway for Book II. The result is a marvel of evocative ambience, wonderful for headphones. There are fascinating rarities, too: Lubimov and Alexei Zuev play the instruments in tandem for Ravel's two-piano transcription of the Trois Nocturnes and Debussy's piano-duo version of Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune. — Bradley Bambarger


Electric
Richard Strauss
Elektra
Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet, soprano, et al
London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus
Valery Gergiev, conductor
(LSO Live)

In 1909 Richard Strauss's Elektra made its first audiences reel from the impact of an opera bursting with, as Strauss biographer Tim Ashley put it, "titanic grandeur and Dionysiac violence, soaked in blood, terror, grief and compassion." Even archmodernist Arnold Schoenberg said, "I was never revolutionary. The only revolutionary in our time was Strauss!" The work still sounds avant-garde, able to make anyone's spine shiver. The cast for this live concert recording is mostly compelling, but even with problematic Barbican acoustics, the star of this release (particularly the SACD version) is Strauss's writing for a massive orchestra, with super-saturated detail and climaxes that hit a listener in the solar plexus. — B.B.


Olympic Pasticcio
L'Olimpiade
Various composers
Romina Basso, mezzo-soprano, et al
Venice Baroque Orchestra
Markellos C hryssicos, conductor
(Naïve)

The realization that myriad eighteenth-century composers had set the same story led Venice Baroque Orchestra music director Andrea Marcon to create this pasticcio. L'Olimpiade follows Metastasio's libretto and features arias by Cherubini, Hasse, Pergolesi, Vivaldi and a dozen others. The charming plot involves a king's daughter who may be claimed solely via victory at the Olympic Games. The orchestra plays nimbly, the soloists sing sweetly, and every track is an aria. This is Baroque music you haven't heard by composers you mostly haven't heard that will doubtless provide some rays of sunshine after a gray Olympics. — B.F.


Andreae conducts Andreae
Volkmar Andreae
Symphony in C major, Op. 31; other works
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
Marc Andreae, conductor
(Guild)

Swiss composer and conductor Volkmar Andreae (1879–1962) was a Bruckner advocate who famously declined the New York Philharmonic's offer to replace Mahler as its director following the latter's death in 1911, instead remaining loyal to Zurich's Tonhalle Orchestra. His Symphony in C (written in 1919) is here revealed as original, melodic and memorable, performed with ease and fluency by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, conducted by the composer's grandson, Marc Andreae. All the works on this recording, which include Kleine Suite, Notturno and Scherzo and Music for Orchestra, are congenial world premiere recordings. — B.F.


Kernis Pairings
The Kernis Project: Schubert
Jasper String Quartet
(Sonos Luminus)

In a smart and perhaps cynical bid for relevancy, the Jasper String Quartet, formed at Oberlin, has begun "The Kernis Project," pairing repertory (thus far Beethoven [2011] and Schubert) with works by the American composer Aaron Jay Kernis. Schubert's "Death and the Maiden" is a bit sterile for a work so infused with love and death, but the Kernis, his animated and melodic String Quartet No. 1 ("Musica Celestis") is impassioned and dialed in — and each work benefits from the presence of the other, which is what good programming always aspires to. — B.F.


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