Recommended Releases
LISTEN Spring 2014

Heightened Expressivity
Dvorak: Violin Concerto / Anne Sophie Mutter
Anne-Sophie Mutter has developed into an artist of striking and controversial individuality. Whatever one's view of her highly subjective approach to matters of timbre, phrasing, and accentuation, virtually everyone agrees that she remains a violinist of remarkable technical ability whose interpretations stem from a sincere engagement with the work, and the ability to get exactly the results that she intends. This performance of Dvořák's Violin Concerto is a case in point - the finest version yet to appear outside of the classic Czech tradition. Mutter treats the work in the grand style, turning in a performance of bold gestures, hugely contrasted in tone, tempo, and dynamics. She's assisted in no small degree by Manfred Honeck, a conductor of genius who plays the accompaniment for all it's worth, with the Berlin Philharmonic sounding magnificently committed. Mutter also has a habit, very noticeable in the slow movement, of beginning a soft phrase without vibrato and then adding quite a bit later on, and in less sensitive hands this could turn into a mannerism - but not here. It's all a function of a heightened expressivity that typifies her approach to the music, and when the melodies themselves are so full of feeling it works extremely well. The performance is in no way droopy or sloppily self-indulgent. The finale is one of the friskiest and most rhythmically sharp on disc (Honeck and Berlin are stupendous here), with a coda that truly does offer the last word in physical excitement. There are times when Mutter sounds so luscious and over-the- top that you feel guilty liking her so much, but the love that she radiates has its roots planted firmly in the musical phrase, and in her joy in the work. The couplings are also marvelous, and so intelligent: Dvorak's remaining pieces for violin and orchestra. The Romance is made to sound touchingly profound, the Mazurek is simply a blast from start to finish, and the Humoresque, in Kreisler's arrangement with piano, is surprisingly delicate and witty. Ayami Ikeba provides sensitive keyboard support in this last morsel. Whatever your final view of the interpretations, Mutter truly "speaks" through her instrument, and what she says sheds an entirely new light on Dvorak, and repays the closest attention. David Hurwitz

A Tenor in Command
Fernando De Lucia - Complete Gramophone Company Recordings 1902-1909
A windfall of major boxed set releases in the nineteen seventies and eighties created quite a buzz among avid historic vocal record collectors. One of these collections was Rubini's five-LP set devoted to the complete Gramophone Company recordings of Neapolitan tenor Fernando De Lucia (1860-1925), all recorded between 1902 and 1909. The Marston label has prepared its own edition of this body of work, along with a generous selection from the singer's later recordings for the Naples-based Phonotype label. The singer's instinct for drama and colorful shadings comes across with vivid immediacy throughout this collection, even though his pronounced vibrato, sometimes strident tone, and frequent rhythmic liberties may not be to all tastes. Yet De Lucia's command of long, sustained lines and off-handed yet impressively accurate ornaments conveys such idiomatic character in selections from French operas like Carmen, Les PĂŞcheurs de perles, Mignon, Faust, and Les Huguenots that you almost forget that he is singing in Italian. In Mozart's "Il mio tesoro intanto," De Lucia's flexible pulse, attention to words, and sense of the music's internal arc is convincing. While the tenor made his mark in verismo, he was no less striking and elegantly imaginative in bel canto repertory, Wagner in Italian (what a seductively stretched out "Mein lieber Schwan"!), and popular Neapolitan songs. Jed Distler

Encores as Rapport
Autograph / Alexandre Tharaud
The program is all in the title: Tharaud's encores and meaningful favorites. We come across a few miniatures we know from his recordings (newly performed for this disc), and discover new items in a stylish string of musical pearls. These go from the expected recital bookends of Bach, Couperin, Scarlatti, and Satie to the rather unexpected Rachmaninoff Prelude in C-sharp minor and a Valse lente by Germaine Tailleferre. Tharaud intends encores as "a way of maintaining the rapport with the listener," which is exactly what Autograph does. As the finest interpreter of musical miniatures, Tharaud's encores are not just pretty bonbons - they are the essence of his discreet greatness. Jens F. Laurson

Diabelli, Doubled
Beethoven: Diabelli Variations / Andras Schiff
András Schiff's two-CD set offers two recordings of the Diabelli Variations: one (along with Op. 111) on a 1921 Bechstein piano and one (along with Op. 126) on an 1820 Franz Brodmann fortepiano. Why? According to Schiff, the Bechstein was Schnabel's preferred piano and Schnabel is his ideal performer of Beethoven and Schubert; meanwhile, the 1820 fortepiano mirrors the time and place (Vienna) of the composition. In Schiff's hands, what the Bechstein lacks in power it gains in intimacy and clarity; the pianist delivers a reflective Op. 111 and elegant, confident Variations on this piano. Yet the Variations on the pianoforte have more character and are simply more fun. The orchestral possibilities of the 1820 instrument are milked to their fullest - and to joyous effect. Ben Finane

Profound, Joyful
Bach: Missae Breves Complete Recordings / Pygmalion
Raphaël Pichon leads a realization of Bach's music that is as majestic, brilliant, joyful and profound as it can be. The Mass in F major is a high point, but there are countless others: the choral singing and complementary instrumental colors in the Cum Sancto Spiritu movement of BWV 236; the driving energy of the BWV 233 Gloria; the almost painfully gorgeous rendition of the motet O Jesu Christ, mein Lebens Licht. There is not a wrong turn, instance of imperfect ensemble, or missed moment of interpretive nuance - and we hear everything, including each subtle shading of color from the bassoon, horn, oboe, theorbo, trumpets - that Bach so carefully and cleverly employs throughout. David Vernier

Neglected Britten
Britten: Reflections / Thwaite, Jones
In his teens, Benjamin Britten wrote a lot of music that was either performed and forgotten or shelved and unpublished until after his death. Here is an enlightening look at some of those forgotten or neglected gems. After the piano, the viola was Britten's instrument, and this program features one of his finest viola works - the often-recorded Lachrymae, Op. 48 - but also highlights several rarities. These include what is claimed to be a world-premiere recording of his Etude for solo viola, an ambitious work by any standard, but especially for a fifteen-year-old who was able not only to write it but to play it. Similarly impressive are the Elegy for unaccompanied viola (written a year after the Etude) and (a year later) Two Pieces for Violin and Piano - "The Moon" and "Going Down Hill on a Bicycle (A Boy's Song)." All of the works here show the pleasures and sometimes prickly accompaniments that exquisitely reveal an unfettered, independent quality that invites listen after listen. D.V.

Inauthentic Scarlatti
Scarlatti Recreated - Transcriptions And Hommages / Sandro Russo - Piano
Here's a program that features transcriptions of Domenico Scarlatti's keyboard sonatas along with original works that use the sonatas as a jumping-off point. Many Classical- and Romantic-period composers and pianists felt the need to update Scarlatti's keyboard textures by filling in chords, adding double notes or octaves, or spicing up the harmonies. Politically incorrect by twenty-first-century standards, true, but "inauthenticity" can be fun, especially in the hands of a pianist like Sandro Russo. He revels in Louis Brassin's unabashedly upholstered transformation of the K. 525 F major sonata and its humorously leaping embellishments, and conveys the full impact of Granados's subtle, full-bodied piano writing with little sustain pedal. The multi-layered strands of Ignaz Friedman's busy rewrite of K. 523 suggest an overdubbed second piano, while Russo captures the impetuous quality of Marc-André Hamelin's bitonal Scarlatti-based etude with no less sparkle than in the composer's own performances. And although several pianists have taken up Raymond Lewenthal's nutty, harmonically pungent Toccata alla Scarlatti in recent years, Russo's crisp rhythms and slightly dry touch are just so. Jed Distler

A Sense of Shape
Bach: Inventions & Sinfonias / Simone Dinnerstein
There's much to admire here. Faster pieces benefit from Simone Dinnerstein's crisp fingerwork and lilting contrapuntal interplay. Ornaments are executed with pointed sophistication and consistency, while the E major Sinfonia ravishes the ear by way of the pianist's crystal-clear legato phrasing. Dinnerstein's fluid and subtle articulation in the F minor Sinfonia allows the music's devastating chromatic tension to come through. Even tracks that may strike listeners as overly protracted, like the D minor Invention, convey a sense of spine and purposeful shape. This is Dinnerstein's strongest, most focused Bach release to date. Jed Distler

A Strauss Starter Kit
Strauss: Complete Orchestral Works / Rudolf Kempe, Staatskapelle Dresden
These performances remain the absolute benchmarks for great Strauss playing and conducting. While there are other equally fine individual performances from the likes of Reiner, Karajan, and Szell, no one matches Kempe and the Staatskapelle Dresden for sheer clarity of texture and consistent liveliness and musicality. The ideal way of building your Strauss collection is to start here, and then supplement with other individual items, such as the Reiner Ein Heldenleben, the last Karajan Death and Transfiguration, and the Kord or Solti Alpine Symphonies. David Hurwitz

Vibrant Handel
Handel: L'allegro, Il Penseroso Ed Il Moderato / Neumann, Doyle, Keohane, Hulett
This extraordinary bit of Handel theater, a cross between ode and oratorio, has apparently only had one new recording in more than a decade until this captivating newcomer. Swedish soprano Maria Keohane's silver-sheened vocals and affecting delivery are coupled with tenor Benjamin Hulett and bass Andreas Wolf's ease in Handelian style. The chorus perfectly captures the letter and spirit of its supporting role, usually as the collective echoing voice of a preceding aria. Peter Neumann and his Collegium Cartusianum prove as capable as we - and assuredly Mr. Handel - could have hoped for, complemented by clearly detailed, vibrant sound. Although this work from early 1740 may have faded into obscurity after a period of success during Handel's lifetime, it's hard to imagine that it isn't ready for a new audience after hearing this new, irresistibly compelling production David Vernier

The Late-Romantic Kitchen Sink
Enescu: Symphony No. 3; Ouverture De Concert / Lintu, Tampere Philharmonic
Enescu's Third Symphony is one of those "everything including the kitchen sink" late-Romantic orchestral extravaganzas that makes Scriabin sound tame. Scored for a huge orchestra, including a wordless chorus in the finale, it is virtuosic and difficult to play but great fun to hear. Hannu Lintu takes his time with the score, but he secures impressive playing from the Tampere Philharmonic. In his hands, Enescu's debt to Tchaikovsky's "Pathéthique" Symphony in the second-movement march becomes especially evident, while the balance between orchestra and voices in the finale is extremely well judged and atmospheric, a tribute also to Ondine's engineers. Enescu's cumbersomely titled Concert Overture on Themes in the Romanian Popular Character (it's even longer in French) is a late work. It begins in an appropriately folksy style, and then all hell breaks loose - in a good way. More refined in scoring than the Third Symphony, the piece is still a riot of color and arresting harmonies, folk-influenced or not. It's just as well played as the symphony - and a rarity on disc. David Hurwitz

Smooth Without Smothering
Rachmaninov: Symphonic Dances, The Bells / Rattle, Berlin Philharmonic
These Symphonic Dances are marked by that typical Berlin smoothness that never smothers the texture in an excess of timbral homogeneity. The first movement's thorny "Non allegro" is perfectly paced, and punchily accented. The ensuing waltz is both sexy and sinister, while the finale has plenty of excitement, with the slow central episode particularly well sustained. The coda is aptly blazing. If anything, The Bells is even better. Spectacularly well sung by the Berlin Radio Choir and a fine trio of soloists, Rattle's performances are as atmospheric and colorful as any on disc. Check out the opening of the third movement ("The Alarm Bells") and you'll immediately understand that nothing here is going to be underplayed. B.B.

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