September 04, 2008


Bach: Music for Lute-Harpsichord. Elizabeth Farr, lute-harpsichord. Naxos. $17.99 (2 CDs).

Joseph Martin Kraus: Secular Cantatas. Simone Kermes, soprano; L’Arte del Mondo conducted by Werner Ehrhardt. Phoenix Edition. $16.99 (SACD).

Mozart: Requiem; Mass in C minor, K. 427. Kölner Rundfunkchor and Kölner-Rundfunk-Sinfonie-Orchester conducted by Gary Bertini. Phoenix Edition. $16.99 (2 SACDs).

     It is a genuine pleasure to discover less-known works by a very well-known composer. It is an equally genuine pleasure to discover a composer who is not well known but whose works show a very high quality of craftsmanship. And sometimes, the pleasure lies simply in a performance of familiar works that is so good that it reveals the music in all its greatness.

     Bach’s lute-harpsichord music is fascinating primarily because of the instrument’s sound. Some of the works on Elizabeth Farr’s new two-CD set will be familiar to listeners in other arrangements, such as the Fugue in G minor, BWV 1000, which is the second movement of Sonata No. 1 for Violin Solo; or the Sonata in D minor, BWV 964, better known as the Sonata No. 2 (in A minor) for Violin Solo. Other works here, such as suites originally written for lute, may be less well known. No matter – everything sounds different and quite wonderful on the lute-harpsichord, which is a keyboard instrument, strung with gut, that provides a lute-like sound but with much fuller sonic range. Bach owned two of these curious hybrid instruments, and Farr plays a reconstruction of one of them. The music is quite recognizably by Bach, but the sound is highly unusual, as if a lute’s courses had been expanded substantially (each course was typically two strings, except for the highest, single-string chanterelle). No human hand could play a stringed instrument with as many courses as are available on the lute-harpsichord; but the keyboardist can do so. And while the sound of the lute-harpsichord is not quite that of the lute, neither is it that of the harpsichord, having more of the lute’s characteristic warmth. The four suites in this set (BWV 995, 996, 997 and 1006a), and the fugue and sonata arrangements, are complemented by a Prelude, Fugue and Allegro (BWV 998), a Prelude (BWV 999), and a Sarabanda con partite (BWV 990) – all played with fine attention to detail and with a sound whose discovery is a delight in itself.

     The discovery of the music of Joseph Martin Kraus, an almost exact contemporary of Mozart (Kraus lived from 1756 to 1792), is not exactly new: Werner Ehrhardt has been advocating Kraus’ music for years. But the four Kraus secular cantatas conducted by Ehrhardt on a new SACD are something of a revelation, with soprano Simone Kermes singing throughout in a clear, well-modulated voice that has fine tone throughout its range, as Kraus weaves music of subtlety and refinement throughout works entitled La Scusa, La Primavera, La Gelosia and La Pesca. Kraus, it turns out, has considerable skill in tone painting (although his “spring” is nothing like, say, Vivaldi’s), and his use of the orchestra is as impressive as his vocal writing. Four excerpts from Olympie – the overture, two Largos and an Andantino – are used as entr’actes to separate the cantatas, and they provide further insight into Kraus’ fine handling of purely instrumental music. This is a Classical-era composer whose acquaintance is definitely worth making.

     Yet Kraus was, of course, no Mozart, and it is rather unfair to listen to Kraus’ secular cantatas and then turn to the new two-SACD set of Mozart’s great sacred music. The pleasures of Mozart are of a higher sort, and perhaps never higher than in the Requiem and the “Great” Mass in C minor. These recordings conducted by Gary Bertini – originally dating to 1991 – feature top-notch choral singing, first-rate orchestral playing, and two different sets of solo voices, each of them excellent. For the Mass, there are soprano Arleen Auger, mezzo-soprano Doris Soffel, tenor Thomas Moser and bass Stephen Roberts. In the Requiem, the soprano is Krisztina Laki; Soffel is again the mezzo; the tenor is Robert Swensen; and the bass is Thomas Quasthoff – whose voice is especially sonorous and full. There are many versions of these two magnificent works from which to choose. Bertini’s rank high among them – and will be of especially great interest to those whose systems allow full use of SACD sound (and the two-SACD set is offered at the same price usually charged for a single SACD). These great Mozart sacred works have simply never sounded better than they do here.

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