On Record

Dueling Donnas
Mozart: Don Giovanni
Diana Damrau, soprano;
Joyce DiDonato, mezzo-soprano;
Rolando Villazón, tenor; et al
Mahler Chamber Orchestra
Yannick Nézet-Séguin, conductor
(Deutsche Grammophon)

One can easily overlook the underpowered Commendatore of Vitalij Kowaljow and the squally Zerlina of Mojca Erdmann to savor the finest traversals of the roles of Donna Anna and Donna Elvira (Damrau and DiDonato) on disc since Sutherland and Schwarzkopf almost fifty years ago. Add to these a Don Ottavio with character, beautiful tone, and the necessary breath control (Villazón); a manly, dark-toned Don Giovanni (Ildebrando D'Arcangelo); and a mellifluous Leporello (Luca Pisaroni), and this set is a must-hear. Nézet-Séguin's leadership, so fine in Romantic operas, here has little profile (he's no Giulini in this repertoire), but the Mahler Chamber Orchestra plays handsomely — Robert Levine

Satisfying, Unsentimental
Pyotr Tchaikovsky
Symphonies Nos. 1, 2 & 3
London Symphony Orchestra
Valery Gergiev, conductor
(LSO Live)

The most satisfying Tchaikovsky symphony cycle of the twenty-first century is now an all-London affair, if you add this LSO release of the first three symphonies to Italian conductor Daniele Gatti's final three with the Royal Philharmonic. Despite the catchy nicknames "Winter Daydreams," "Little Russian," and "Polish," these inventive, vigorous symphonies haven't caught on like their three saccharine successors. This set won't challenge the dominance of the "Pathtique," but it should make new converts. Instead of wading through sentimentalism, Gergiev puts on his riding boots (mud-crusted in the Third), balancing energetic crudity with extant daintiness. The live recordings - two from the Barbican, one from Zurich's Tonhalle - could be crisper, but pack a real sonic punch if played very loud. — Jens F. Laurson

Cool and Lovely
Sogno Barocco
Various composers
Anne Sofie von Otter, mezzo-soprano;
Sandrine Piau, soprano
Ensemble Cappella Mediterranea
Leonardo Garc’a Alarc—n, conductor

Anne Sofie von Otter offers a program of scenes and duets, the latter with the ravishing Sandrine Piau as Poppea to her Nero in Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea. The lean, clean accompaniment ideally matches von Otter's inward approach to the music, which she dispatches with attention to the text and exquisite musicality. While all the selections are beautifully presented (save for a too-speedy final duo from Poppea that robs the music of its sensuality), one is left feeling that there is more intellect than passion in the program. But there is still much to admire besides the refined singing: An entertaining parody piece by Provenzale that mocks Rossi's dark "Lament for the Queen of Sweden" is a rarity and a treat. — R.L.

Ludwig Van Beethoven
Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 3
Mahler Chamber Orchestra
Leif Ove Andsnes, piano/director
(Sony Classical)

Leif Ove Andsnes is a journeyman meat-and-potatoes classicist with a specialty in Northern European repertoire and a penchant for Beethoven; he is close to capturing the "Moonlight" Sonata as a signature piece. The pianist has now released the first in a series of Beethoven piano concerto recordings, dramatically titled The Beethoven Journey. A pianist of warmth and sensitivity, Andsnes, directing from the keyboard, has a great partner in the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, which is affectionately attuned to his phrasings. You can hear the love — B.F.

Celtic Tradition
Sacrum Mysterium: A Celtic Christmas Vespers
La Nef; Apollo's Fire
Jeannette Sorrell, conductor

This lovingly prepared collaboration between Apollo's Fire - led by Jeannette Sorrell; this project is her vision-and La Nef leaves behind any notion that the mixing of the sacred and profane belongs to the (post) modern era; it is a longstanding Celtic tradition. On these discs the Christmas myth is brought to vivid life: vernacular reels, drones, lullabies, and airs stand alongside carols and settings of the Mass proper. The performances (especially by soprano Meredith Hall) are an appropriate cross between the roughhewn and the precise, with intimate, you-were-there sonics to match. — Daniel Felsenfeld

The Nielsen You Need
Carl Nielsen
Symphonies Nos. 2 and 3
New York Philharmonic
Alan Gilbert, conductor

The New York Philharmonic is a powerhouse orchestra, Nielsen is a powerhouse symphonist, and Alan Gilbert revels in the music's energy and dynamism. Gilbert's interpretations take no prisoners, and frankly, that is just what Nielsen needs. The string playing is particularly beautiful here, and the Philharmonic's woodwinds - the solo oboe especially - do themselves proud in music that often relies on their artistry and character. Gilbert reveals a genuine affinity for the music, and Nielsen's athleticism suits the orchestra very well indeed — D.H.

Carmen Lite
Georges Bizet
Magdalena Kozena, mezzo-soprano;
Jonas Kaufmann, tenor; et al
Berlin Philharmonic
Simon Rattle, conductor

Stupendous playing by the Berlin Philharmonic - with remarkable orchestral detail that reveals the opera's "Frenchness," sharp attacks, and quick tempos - makes listening to this newly recorded Carmen an exhilarating, alluring experience. Simon Rattle brings freshness to the score. Gorgeous-voiced mezzo Magdalena Kozena is controversial we are used to bigger-voiced Carmens, with more Mediterranean glamour; she seems a bit dainty for the part. The cast's star is Jonas Kaufmann as Don José; by turns vicious, tortured, loving, deranged, and always singing with taste, intelligence, and beauty of tone. Kostas Smoriginas is a weak Escamillo; Genia Kühmeier is the loveliest of Micaëlas. — R.L.

The Best
Murray Perahia Plays Mozart
W.A. Mozart
Complete Piano Concertos
(Sony Classical)

The 2012 Sony Masters repackaging of this cycle, recorded during the 1970s and '80s, was sonically remastered in twenty-four-bit in 2006. Frankly, if you're looking for a modern-instrument Mozart piano concerto cycle, no better bargain exists on disc. Perahia's immaculate technique, stylistic surety, and classical symmetry are remarkably consistent. While his tone is always singing and rounded, in lyrical melodies and decorative passages alike there's a slight, diamond-like edge to the peak of the crescendos or emphatic accents. The result is an attractive fusion of unruffled poise and dramatic tension. Perahia's symbiotic musical rapport with Radu Lupu in the two-piano concerto and the two-piano version of the concerto for three pianos should not go unmentioned — Jed Distler

Vivaldi Juxtaposed
Venice by Night
Antonio Vivaldi, et al
Various soloists
La Serenissima
Adrian Chandler, director

Since hearing his Vivaldi release The French Connection - as immediately and thoroughly charming a Vivaldi disc as I've come across - I've kept my ears peeled for Adrian Chandler's new releases. Not only is his period troupe La Serenissima formidable, Chandler proves particularly adept at mixing and matching works so that sameness and routine never creep in. On Venice by Night, forty minutes of Vivaldi are interspersed with world-premiere recordings of eighteenthcentury arias, concertos, and sinfonias by Venetian composers Pollarolo, Veracini, Lotti, and Porta. It's a gorgeous collection marked by gentle sincerity, unobtrusive liveliness, confident calm, and accuracy without aggression. — B.F.

A Christmas Service
A Festival of Nine Lessons & Carols
The Choir of King's College Cambridge
Stephen Cleobury, conductor
Ben-San Lau, organ
(Choir of King's College)

Eric Milner-White, a chaplain in the Seventh Infantry Division, resigned his commission in January of 1918 to return to King's College as Dean, where he established the Christmas Eve program Nine Lessons & Carols, based on a tradition at Truro Cathedral and broadcast by the BBC annually since 1928 (excepting 1930). That program, as recorded during The Choir of King's College Cambridge's 2010 Christmas Eve service - carols interspersed with sermons delivered by members of the choir in ranking seniority - makes up the substance of this disc, with additional Choir-commissioned carols by Mark- Anthony Turnage, John Rutter, and others. It is a remarkable concept, remarkably sung by a choir founded in the fifteenth century - an auspicious debut for its namesake label — Ben Finane

Ruddy Labyrinths
William Lawes
Consorts to the Organ
Laurence Dreyfus, treble viol/director
(Linn) (Hybrid SACD)

Penned in the 1630s in the court of Charles I, where he was appointed "musician in ordinary" for the king's "lutes, viols, and voices,Ó William Lawes reached his pinnacle with these works for viol consort. These fantasies must have been remarkably avant-garde in their time, and they remain dark, ruddy labyrinths today - particularly here in SACD, the single greatest audio format. The viol consort Phantasm is a squeezebox of tension and release, firmly supported by organist Daniel Hyde. This is a luxuriant discovery — B.F.

Symphonie fantastique; Le Corsaire
Hector Berlioz
Orchestre National de Lyon
Leonard Slatkin, conductor

This maiden voyage of Mr. Slatkin's tenure as the music director of the Orchestre National de Lyon is not only an outstanding debut, but an engrossing rendering of two dramatic showpieces. Symphonie fantastique, the composerŐs famous (and gloriously obsessive) paean to a stage actress - complete with longueurs, opium trips, balls, and beheadings - is paired with the lesser-known Le Corsaire, written years later, after the dissolution of their marriage. The legend of Berlioz's high-flown personality often supersedes his substantial and elegant music, which runs the gamut from sublime to hysterical to deeply romantic, but Slatkin and his orchestra prove themselves privy and willing to negotiate a wide range of moods with drama, grace, and schmaltz. — B.F.

Fresh Finta
La finta giardiniera
W.A. Mozart
Sophie Karthäuser, soprano; et al
Freiburg Baroque Orchestra
René Jacobs, conductor
(Harmonia Mundi)

Finta was Mozart's first "mature" comic opera (he was eighteen), and while it should not be compared with the da Ponte trilogy, its three hours cannot be dismissed as juvenilia. Count Belfiore, a year before the action begins, has run away after stabbing his fiancee, Countess Violante, and leaving her for dead. She is now disguised and searching for him as Sandrina, a gardener; he arrives, engaged to another but still loving Violante/Sandrina. Mirth, madness, and confusion ensue; all ends happily. Mozart's music plumbs some amazing depths and the act finales - quite complex - are magnificently delivered and paced by the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra. — R.L.

Take Two
The Well-Tempered Clavier
J.S. Bach
Andras Schiff, piano

Few pianists have the opportunity to record a Bach masterpiece and have anyone pay attention to the result. Infinitely fewer can do so twice. Andr‡s Schiff first recorded WTC in the eighties for Decca. "There were touches of sentimentality I didn't consider sentimental at the time," Schiff said of his youthful effort in our fall issue, "and I donŐt like sentimentality." Schiff 's sustain-pedal-free revisitation for ECM, if even more studied than his Decca release, paradoxically yields a less labored and micromanaged result (and in a far richer acoustic), perhaps thanks to all the time Schiff spent in the intervening years reflecting on the music. Is that how maturity works? — B.F.

Satisfying Trip
French Album
Gabriel Fauré, et al
Stephen Hough, piano

Stephen Hough takes us to France, but with quick jaunts across the border, including the opening salvo, Alfred Cortot's arrangement of the Bach Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565. Elsewhere - particularly in the Nocturne No. 6, C-sharp minor Improvisation, F-sharp minor Impromptu, and Fifth Barcarolle - the pianist's velvet, legato touch and ultra-sensitive ear for harmonic inflection yield some of the most remarkable Fauré playing on disc. In Ravel's Alborada del gracioso, Hough's awesomely accurate repeated notes and perfectly gauged dynamic outbursts are matched by his underlining of dissonances that other pianists tend to pacify. This is an imaginative and brilliantly executed program. — B.F.

Concerto No. 2; other works
Janine Jansen, violin
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Vladimir Jurowski, conductor

In 2005, when Decca released Janine Jansen's recording of Vivaldi's The Four Seasons, it was easy to write her off as a novelty act, another pretty violinist rehashing the most overflogged warhorse in the repertoire - though her fresh and insightful approach to the piece proved serious and noteworthy. This all-Prokofiev disc (Concerto No. 2, Sonata for Two Violins, and Sonata No. 1) proves Jansen to be a forceful whip in this snapping, seething, lamenting repertoire - if only the London Philharmonic Orchestra could keep apace the way pianist Itamar Golan and violinist Boris Brovtsyn do. — D.F.

Debussy at One Hundred Fifty
Claude Debussy
Préludes Books 1 & 2
Pierre-Laurent Aimard, piano
(Deutsche Grammophon)

Aimard is no sentimentalist, yet amid his trademark transparency, the pianist's Debussy retains its warmth. And the rich, wet acoustic of whateverthe- hell room or hall he's in at La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, is an elegant complement both to the material and the musician. Aimard keeps things moving, coloring without soaking, pausing without wallowing. "La fille aux cheveux de lin," so often delivered as a mousy piece of "Impressionism," is given strength and character here. "La cathédrale engloutie" is raised, while no one's pussyfooting around in "La Danse de Puck." In short, atmosphere never bogs down the plot. Bravo, Monsieur! — B.F.

Esprit D'Armenie
Jordi Savall, soprano viol da gamba/viele a archet/rebec
Hesperion XXI
(Alia Vox)

An homage to the criminally overlooked Armenian massacre, this recording is a boomy (in the best way) collection of somber folk material played with elegance and restraint - maybe too much restraint? Perhaps the only summation of such an event would have to be somber and contemplative - the hefty booklet notes serve as a surprisingly thorough history of the people and a reflection on a ghastly genocide. But the quality performances of Mr. Savall and his ensemble are made harder to grasp amid the reflective drones, which, though beautiful and culturally appropriate, perhaps suffer from cautious over-reverence; this rangy ensemble offers, on this disc, little in the way of contrasting mood — B.F.

Contemporary Schubert
Franz Schubert
String Quartets Nos. 13, 14 & 15
Artemis Quartet

Germany's Artemis Quartet has produced a striking body of recorded work over the past decade - from a truly exciting Beethoven cycle to excellent collaborations yielding the likes of Schoenberg's Transfigured Night. This double-disc set features Schubert's late string quartets in characteristically intense and very contemporary interpretations, with less vibrato than traditional in this repertoire. For the Artemis here, Schubert is not a purveyor of charming Viennese melodicism - he is a master of daring instrumental drama. The Artemis plays as if pulling back the old skin of the music to reveal nerves still on fire, with takes on the "Death and the Maiden" and the epic G major fit to make an unsuspecting listener reel. Even the "Rosamunde" is utterly electric — Bradley Bambarger

Winning Concept
Passion & Resurrection - Music Inspired by Holy Week
Stile Antico
Works by Cornysh, Gibbons, Tallis,
Lassus, Morales, Victoria, McCabe,
Taverner, Guerrero, Byrd, LhŽritier
& Crecquillon
(Harmonia Mundi) (Hybrid SACD)

The program concept - settings of texts inspired by the events of Holy Week and Easter - makes for an immensely satisfying listening experience, with first-rate performances and uniformly gorgeous music. You could pick any one of these thirteen pieces and justifiably label it a masterpiece, even though some of them are not especially well-known or oft-recorded. Stile Antico, a young British ensemble of twelve or fourteen or fifteen singers (it changes according to the work at hand), represents the future of serious, unhyped, technically polished, stylistically attuned, and musically affecting choral performance. — David Vernier

Thought and Restraint
W.A. Mozart
Concertos Nos. 9 and 21
Mitsuko Uchida, piano/conductor
Cleveland Orchestra

Executing the piano music of Mozart gracefully is almost entirely a backstage affair - unlike the more virtuosic music of, say, Liszt or Chopin, where the pyrotechnics impress, Mozart requires a certain humility of dispatch, a willingness to allow the bulk of your work to go unnoticed. To say that pianist Mitsuko Uchida is among the most capable performers of this difficult repertoire is an understatement, and here she performs two of his best-loved piano concertos - Nos. 9 and 21, conducting (Mozart style!) the Cleveland Orchestra from the keyboard - deftly, accurately, and with her storied vigorous subterranean thought and surface restraint — D.F.

Fine Crossover
Be My Love - A Tribute to Mario Lanzay
Joseph Calleja, tenor
BBC Concert Orchestra
Stephen Mercurio, conductor

Mario Lanza, the American-born heartthrob of the 1950s, had a glorious operatic voice that he opted to showcase in Hollywood movies, influencing such tenors as Carreras, Pavarotti, and, now, the Maltese Joseph Calleja. Calleja sings not only arias - "Cielo e mar," "Nessun dorma," and more - but Neapolitan favorites and songs that Lanza sang in his films. "Be my love" is a beauty, and Calleja caps it with an easy high C; he caresses "Arrivederci, Roma" and generates heat with "Granada." Throughout, he demonstrates a gorgeous tone and stylistic "rightness" for each selection. Even if he somewhat lacks LanzaŐs charisma, his spectacular, shaded singing will nonetheless endear him to opera lovers and Lanza lovers alike. — R.L.

Elizabethan Fancies
Two Lutes: Lute Duets from EnglandŐs Golden Age
Ronn McFarlane, lute
William Simms, lute
(Sono Luminus)

When lutes come, they come not in battalions but as single spies. Yet here are there two, playing twenty-seven nimble duets by composers you know (the influential John Dowland and the profoundly influential and prolific Anonymous) and composers you don't know (John Johnson, "Royal Lewter" to Elizabeth I; Thomas Robinson, who got his start, like Dowland, in the Danish court). My ear can track the lines but can't tell McFarlane and Simms' playing apart, which is to say they both play beautifully. There's enough contrast within to return to the Renaissance fare without drifting off, unless that is what you seek. — B.F.

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