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Orchestral Theater
Gustav Mahler
Symphony No. 9
Los Angeles Philharmonic
Gustavo Dudamel, conductor
(Deutsche Grammophon)
The whirlwind sensation that is conductor Gustavo Dudamel would be easy to dismiss as yet another Icarian romance between the press and a musician, and yet he continues to match his welldeserved praise. And his powers are palpable in this recording of Mahler's daunting, layered, and emotionally fugitive Ninth Symphony. Dudamel handles it all - from the swampy opening (shades of Bruno Walter) to the literally excruciating final bars - with casual flair. It would be easy to treat this symphony as a holy relic, but more exciting is to treat it as Dudamel does, as a vivid piece of orchestral theater. And of course his vision is brought to life by the astonishing' Los Angeles Philharmonic, which continues to dazzle. — Daniel Felsenfeld


Complete Mendelssohn
Felix Mendelssohn
The complete symphonies, concertos, string symphonies
Amsterdam Sinfonietta
Lev Markiz, conductor
Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra
Andrew Litton, conductor
(BIS)

Mendelssohn's symphonies in this complete set, Nos. 1 and 4 are splendid, with tremendous playing from the Bergen Philharmonic and Andrew Litton conducting with both vigor and sensitivity. But this set also offers arguably the finest available performances of Mendelssohn's complete string symphonies (including the full orchestra version of No. 8). The Amsterdam Sinfonietta plays magnificently throughout, while Lev Markiz is particularly adept at maintaining rhythmic and textural interest in the first half-dozen symphonies, the most derivative and least characteristic music. But really, all the performances are superb, and they are extremely well recorded, too. The complete concertos are not as uniformly excellent here, but it's an astonishing bargain. — David Hurwitz


Golden Age Now
Rhapsody in Blue
Works by Gershwin, Ravel and Saint-Saëns
Benjamin Grosvenor, piano
Liverpool Philharmonic
James Judd, conductor
(Decca)

The reasons behind comparisons of Benjamin Grosvenor to the pianists of the "Golden Age" are on excellent display here. The ghosts of Michelangeli, Kappel, and a less-heavy-handed Rubinstein all haunt these readings, and would no doubt be pleased with the legacy. Playing Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue remains a calculated risk, but the payoff here is worthy, as both the pianist and the Liverpool Philharmonic (deftly led by James Judd) round the corners of Gershwin's always-surprising grab bag of raw invention. And while Rhapsody is given pride of place, it is in Ravel's concerto that Grosvenor's special sensibilities, the very aspect of his musical thinking that garnered the "Golden Age" comparison, are showcased. If the true test of a musician is not how quickly they can play but how well they handle slow, sensitive material, then the second movement is all we need to hear to know that this pianist is deserving of praise. — D.F.


Schubert with Pluck
Franz Schubert
Fantasie in C, Rondo in B minor, Sonata in A
Carolin Widmann, violin
Alexander Lonquich, piano
(ECM)

Carolin Widmann is a household name only in households that listen to lots of Sciarrino, Boulez, or her brother Jšrg's music. But the German violinist with the most musical pizzicato in the business has a deft hand with the romantic repertoire. Her Schumann Sonatas (also ECM) are a revelation; the Schubert here is equally gratifying. The way Widmann and pianist Alexander Lonquich throw themselves into the klutzy rhythms of the Rondo's Allegro then emerge with the sunniest, most graceful disposition causes one to smile inside. The Fantasie has an assertive, feisty quality, devoid of romantic slobbering in the Andantino. And out of the marginalized A-major sonata Widmann and her accomplice make something that sounds like top-shelf Schubert. — Jens F. Laurson


Clean Lines
Ludwig Van Beethoven
The violin sonatas
Leonidas Kavakos, violin
Enrico Pace, piano
(Decca)

Here's the accepted line on the Beethoven Violin Sonatas: Mozart carried the form out of parlor-night amateurism and heroically unshackled and liberated the violin, giving it generally more to do making it an equal partner in the duo. He passed the torch to Beethoven, who made the Violin Sonata even more serious, like Symphony Serious. Like no-coughing-for-twenty-minutes serious. And Beethoven's Ten Violin Sonatas are now Cornerstones of the Repertoire. My God, the pressure! But what's fantastic about this record, featuring third-generation Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos and a pianist I hadn't heard of, is that this music is kept light and clean. It sounds like these guys are having fun and enjoying themselves - which makes the music fun and enjoyable. Ruddy, spirited playing from Kavakos; attentive articulation, sensitivity and balanced attack from Pace. Lighten up and enjoy — B.F.


Mozart Melt
W.A. Mozart
Sonatas for Piano and Violin K454, 379, 526
Lars Vogt, piano
Christian Tetzlaff, violin
(Ondine)

Mozart at once old-fashioned and intellectually fresh comes courtesy of Lars Vogt and Christian Tetzlaff. The title of their album reflects refreshing honesty: "Sonatas for Piano and Violin," not "Violin Sonatas." The music deserves - and gets - equal partners. Lars Vogt's light and lyrical touch in K379's unaccompanied first variation of the Andantino cantabile melts right through the speakers: Exemplary for his contribution throughout. It helps that Christian Tetzlaff is no limelight hog; the violinist accompanies or leads as necessary in K454 and 526 with a rich but controlled tone. The disc is a wonderful compliment to the singular Uchida/Steinberg recording (Philips). — J.F.L.


Fresh Mouton
Jean Mouton, Loyset Compère
Various works
The Tallis Scholars
Peter Phillips, conductor
(Gimell)

The Tallis Scholars offer a first-class musical tribute to Jean Mouton, a lesser-known but eminently worthy contemporary of Josquin des Prez. This program features some of the finest malevoice singing ever recorded by this ensemble, owing to music that so beautifully exploits the textural and timbral benefits of lowerregister scoring. The big work, Mouton's Missa Dictes moy toutes voz pensées, is based on a three-voice chanson by fifteenth-century Flemish (or French) composer Loyset Compère, another relative unknown. This latest effort reflects conductor Peter Phillips' directive: "my ambition to put before the public Renaissance composers who deserve to be better known." — David Vernier


Bach and a Little Beyond
Bach & Beyond Part 1
Works by Bach, Ysaÿe, Saariaho
and Mazzoli Jennifer Koh, violin
(Cedille)

Jennifer Koh's Bach & Beyond album, the first of three steps toward a complete Sonatas & Partitas set, works best as a recital. The main ingredients, the E-Major and D-Minor Partitas and the Ysaÿe Sonata op.27/2, are part of great, greater musical sets that deserve dedicated recordings most collectors already own. (If not: Milstein (DG) in Bach, Zehetmair or Kavakos in Ysaÿe.) That said and skipping Koh's rationalizing PR-babble ("connection to present world through historical journey . . ."), it's a darkly enjoyable eightyminute program with obvious audible links between the Bach, the superbly played Ysaÿe (stunning bagpipe emulation in the Sarabande!), and Missy Mazzoli's simplistic-lovelyharmless Bach-infused Dissolve, O My Heart. The pivot is Kaija Saariaho's five-minute breathyfragile Nocturne. — J.F.L.


Thomas in His Element
American Mavericks
Works by Cowell, Harrison and Varèse
San Francisco Symphony
Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor
(San Francisco Symphony)

M ichael Tilson Thomas has long been an advocate of Henry Cowell's fascinating output, and he presents here two works - Synchrony and his Piano Concerto - that sound as freshly radical as when they were written. Pianist Jeremy Denk attacks the latter with plenty of gusto and charisma, and the result is wholly exhilarating. Lou Harrison's Concerto for Organ with Percussion makes for an unforgettable, even disturbing experience. Paul Jacobs is the exceptional soloist. In this company, Varèse's Amériques sounds almost conventional. Thomas and the SFSO play it magnificently, with ideal clarity of texture and amazing virtuosity. — J.F.L.


Unknown in Deep Space
Paul Rovsing Olson
Piano Concerto and Orchestral Works
Odense Symphony Orchestra
Christina Bjørkøe, piano
Bo Holten, conductor
(Dacapo)

It's gratifying to come across an excellent piano concerto never heard before. In this case that of Poul Rovsing Olsen (1922Ð1982), who is so unknown he doesn't even have a Wikipedia entry. Audibly a student of Nadia Boulanger and Oliver Messiaen, Olsen's music is melodic, rhythmically taut, and catchy in a conservative twentieth-century way. Coupled with the Danish composer's concerto are his Symphonic Variations and Au fond de la nuit for chamber orchestra. The "astral" music of the latter consists of fifteen minutes of "deep-space Messiaen." Soloist Christina Bjørkøe and conductor Bo Holten are Dacapo veterans, aided and abetted splendidly by the Odense Symphony Orchestra. — J.F.L.


A Fearless Pairing
Johannes Brahms, Alban Berg
Violin concertos
Renaud Capuçon, violin
Vienna Philharmonic
Daniel Harding, conductor
(Virgin Classics)

Renaud Capuçon knows and loves his Brahms, having released records of his chamber music on the Virgin imprint, so it is little wonder he and the Vienna Philharmonic (the composer's old "home team" orchestra) would make a spot-on recording of the master's Violin Concerto - and he does not disappoint. But remarkable is the violinist's way with another Viennese composer's work, the violin concerto of Alban Berg. The piece - one of the saddest bits of musical prophecy and despair ever penned - can be, to say the least, an exhausting excursion, having little in the way of levity and even less in the way of hope, and yet Capuçon, accompanied by Daniel Harding, gets his way around both the spirit and the grit that makes this piece so terrifyingly effective. In this era of selective listening, these two seemingly ill-matched pieces - given these fearless performances - make for one excellent and complete listen. — D.F.


American Mélodies
Colors of Feelings
Philip Lasser
Susanna Phillips, soprano; Elizabeth Futral; soprano et al
(Delos)

Philip Lasser (born 1963) is the most francophone American composer, and every one of his boldly melodious compositions shows it. The Juilliard professor's pedigree includes Nadia Boulanger and David Diamond. He's armed with healthy dissonance but never succumbs to kitsch and triteness. "Colors" contains three song cycles: One serene English (Susanna Phillips), another strident-magnetic French: mélodies of the first order. And then Nicolette et Aucassin: less song cycle than a fairytale audio book with incidental music. "Chantefable" is exceedingly strange, probably a very early satire, taking clichés of heroic tales and turning them upside down. Lasser adapted, economized, condensed, and de-weirded it. Michael York entrances with uncanny narration; the two sopranos' ancient-modern intertwined lines enchant. — J.F.L.


A Trip to Olde England
An English Fancy
Works by Baltzar, Byrd, Hume, Lawes, Locke, Purcell et al
Trio Settecento
(Cedille)

Its fourth and final album surveying early European music, Trio Settecento's An English Fancy takes up English pieces from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Rachel Barton Pine trades her Baroque violin for a Renaissance replica with gut strings - producing a fatter, flatter sound. She is joined by John Mark Rozendaal on viola da gamba and David Schrader on harpsichord and positiv organ, which is a one-manual portable pipe organ. Highlights include William Lawes' rewarding Suite No. 8 in D Major; Thomas Baltzar's sunny set of variations, John Come Kiss Me Now; and Purcell's Ayres for the Theatre, the Overture of which reveals the tasty dissonances and pitfalls of chromatic harpsichord playing. In all, there are eighty minutes of labyrinthine delights here in which to lose yourself. — J.D.


Purring Brahms
Johannes Brahms
Four ballades; Eight pieces for piano;
Paganini Variations
Alessio Bax, piano
(Signum Classics)

Alessio Bax has a way of taking big, growling, potentially overwrought romantic piano animals - lately Rachmaninoff, now Brahms - and making them purr like kittens. The brooding depth of Brahms' Four Ballades is transformed into steady calm, especially the serene murmur of the Fourth, which is sensitive, sentimental, and light. With no browbeating of Brahms, Bax and listeners emerge irretrievably into the light with the second of the Eight Pieces for Piano, the ambiguously jocund B minor Capriccio. The Paganini Variations - more afterthought than main ingredient - are individually tracked. Bax's edgeless tone is matched by the sound on this Signum release. — J.F.L.


Franckly Unknown
César Franck
Various works
Orchestre Philharmonique
Royal de Liège
Christian Arming, conductor
(Fuga Libera)

This album features music you probably haven't ever heard. The tone poem Ce qu'on entend sur la montagne ("What One Hears on the Mountain"), from 1847, may be the first symphonic poem in history, predating Liszt's first symphonic poem of the same title by two or three years. It's beautiful. The opening, with its high violins and suspended cymbals, is an astonishing piece of orchestration for its date, far more sophisticated than anything that Liszt or Wagner were doing at the time (the work is contemporary with Tannhäuser). Franck's musical ideas are more striking than Liszt's, his structure more cohesive over virtually the same span of time - about twenty-five minutes. Hulda was Franck's last completed opera, and the ballet music, an allegorical "four seasons" type of scenario, is just good French dance music of the period, enriched by some typically Franckian harmonic spice. — D.H.


In Tune
Still Falls the Rain
Works by Benjamin Britten
Nicholas Phan, tenor

To call tenor Nicholas Phan the heir apparent to composer Benjamin Britten's longtime companion/muse Peter Pears is too obvious. Phan's voice is less nasal than that of Pears, with clearer diction and a broader tone with more depth and focus. It is easy to mistake Britten's work - especially the works found on this disc, like the underutilized Canticle V: The Death of St. Narcissus - as being decorous and all surface, but, as this recording demonstrates, that surface belies nascent emotional depths. Thanks to hornist Jennifer Montone, harpist Sivan Magen, and, most tantalizingly, narrator Alan Cumming, this record is a document of excellent performances and a love letter from a performer to a composer across the years. — D.F.


Beyond the Ring
Wagner: Complete Operas
(Deutsche Grammophon)

Deutsche Grammophon's fortythree- CD survey of Richard Wagner's complete operas may well have the field to itself for overall quality and consistency. For a start, the label has licensed the best and most complete recorded versions of the composer's three early, noncanonical operas. Wagner's first two works in the genre, Die Feen and Das Liebesverbot, appear in a pair of excellent and idiomatically vibrant BBC Bayreuth Centennial broadcast recordings led by Edward Downes. Wagner's style may not have formed by then, yet the young composer's confidence, energy, and often imaginative orchestrations almost always hold attention.
EMI's 1976 Rienzi remains the most extensive documentation of Wagner's first big success that we're likely to have in a studio recording. Giuseppe Sinopoli's brisk and suave Der fliegende Holländer features Bernd Weikl's light and beautifully nuanced Dutchman, Pl‡cido Domingo's ardent, ringing Erik, and an ideal Senta from Cheryl Studer. The Domingo/ Studer/Sinopoli Tannhäuser also stands as a modern reference for the opera's Paris version included here. For both Domingo and Jessye Norman in their respective Wagnerian primes, it's good to reconnect with the 1986 Lohengrin under Solti, whose 1972 Parsifal (the work's first studio recording) brings out a wider range of dynamic and dramatic contrasts than many smoother, more reverential interpretations. A younger, fresher Domingo presides as Walther in Eugen Jochum's 1975 Die Meistersinger, not to mention Dietrich Fischer- Dieskau's multi-dimensional portrayal of Hans Sachs. Carlos Kleiber's Tristan und Isolde is filled with rapture, swift tempos and lightness and the James Levine studio Metropolitan Opera Ring Cycle attests to the high level of ensemble sophistication, flexibility, and polish the Met Orchestra had developed over the years under Levine's music directorship.
The packaging's inner sleeves feature newly commissioned sketches for each opera by Fred Münzmaier and a one-hundredforty- page soft-cover booklet features excellent, informative notes by Christian Wildhagen, full synopses, cast lists, and recording dates, while purchasers are provided with a URL and password to access full texts and translations. You may not necessarily agree with DG's choice for each opera; I'd have selected the harder-to-find and arguably better-cast Bernstein or Goodall Tristans, or Karajan's not-as-well sung yet instrumentally rapturous Parsifal. Still, the DG Wagner Edition's artistic and sonic virtues, modest price tag, and comprehensiveness add up to a wise and rewarding investment.— Jed Distler


Cinderella, Tenderly
Cendrillon
Jules Massenet
Joyce DiDonato, mezzo-soprano; et al
Royal Opera House Orchestra & Chorus Bertrand de Billy, conductor
(Virgin Classics) (DVD)

In Jules Massenet's Cendrillon (1899), Joyce DiDonato again serves notice that she is one of the most sought-after opera singers in the world. Officially a light mezzo, DiDonato here displays range and a delectable timbre joined to an irresistible presence, imbuing Cendrillon with infinite charm and a touching vulnerability. Cendrillon (Cinderella) is lesser-known Massenet but it may be the composer's greatest opera. Written when Massenet was fifty-three, world-famous and very rich, Cendrillon owes the least to the popular styles of his time. Massenet entirely deserts the heavy-breathing, sometimes manipulative (though often clever) style he had used in operas such as Manon and Werther for a work of tenderness.

Underneath the playful exterior lies an ache for a time lost for good, a sadness recognizable to anyone who has seen youth fade. Cendrillon transports us to where magic is possible and a happy ending might just be snatched at the last minute. Cendrillon is a straightforward telling of the Perrault fairy tale, but it is a summa of all the music Massenet knew. He looks far backward to the baroque world of Lully and Rameau, providing as send-up and homage irresistibly tuneful and fantastically scored dance music (trombones and a tuba figure in, always with wit); he also glances at the French comedies of Rossini and of Offenbach, and finally, looks forward. The music given the Fairy Godmother (known simply as The Fairy), albeit high and florid, has evocative, often original scoring and a harmonic palette that suggests musical impressionism. Debussy's Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp some twenty-one years later takes its inspiration from a wonderful sequence for exactly those instruments within the fairy music. Lovely, too, are the duets between Cinderella and her Prince Charming, written for a contrasting mezzo (here, Alice Coote). Richard Strauss clearly held the glorious duets in mind when composing Der Rosenkavalier (1911)

The witty production by Laurent Pelly is set in an old children's book with red binding, open to show gilded pages as walls on which words from the story are written in antique script. He also designed the frequently hilarious costumes, which play with feminine silhouettes from all the periods suggested in Massenet's music, put together some flamboyantly crazy gowns. The men sport attire from the 1890s. Pelly has fun with a very game chorus, who dance a wild tarantella (with dancers added for the more elaborate choreography) and draws good acting from his cast. Alice Coote in the trouser role of the Prince is plausibly boyish and deploys her rich voice well, managing her final outburst with command. Eglise Gutiérrez as The Fairy sings her elaborate music ably, and has fun with Pelly's conception of a punk princess with purple hair and an attitude. Ewa Podles, the evil stepmother, booms out her massive chest notes - and is uproarious. The baritone Jean-Philippe Lafont as the father is on point stylistically but has less than the ideal resonance for his gorgeous duet with a desolate Cendrillon. Supporting roles are very well done. Conductor Bertrand de Billy relishes the score and finds excellent playing in the Royal Opera House Orchestra, vividly captured on the DVD, with energy that doesn't slight the music's tenderness. Here is a wonderful performance of an opera more of us should know. — Albert Innaurato


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