October 07, 2010

(++++) SOUNDING GOOD

Mendelssohn: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2; Rondo brilliant. Martin Helmchen, piano; Royal Flemish Philharmonic conducted by Philippe Herreweghe. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).

Handel: Water Music; Overture to “Rodrigo.” Les Musiciens du Louvre-Grenoble conducted by Marc Minkowski. Na├»ve. $16.99.

     Sometimes what can make familiar music sound really good is simply making it sound really good. That is, when works are already well known to most listeners, when performers can offer interpretative refinement but nothing overwhelmingly new, what can make a recording stand out is simply the way it sounds. It is easy to assume that this would especially be true in the case of SACDs, whose sound is by and large noticeably superior to that of CDs – particularly when played on equipment designed to handle it. But in fact the clarity of SACDs is secondary, for sonic purposes, to the nuances of the performances they capture. And in the case of PentaTone’s new release of the Mendelssohn Piano Concertos, the reading by Martin Helmchen and Philippe Herreweghe is a particularly nuanced one that therefore benefits exceptionally well from the excellence of the recording. In the ebullient Concerto No. 1, the flow between soloist and conductor is simply delightful, especially so in the finale, which bubbles along with warmth, enthusiasm and a fine sense of lyricism to complement the virtuosity. There is genuine partnership here between piano and orchestra – and also in Concerto No. 2, whose mysterious opening builds highly effectively in the orchestra before the soloist picks up and elaborates it. Helmchen and Herreweghe bring delicacy bordering on that of a Mozart concerto to this concerto’s second movement, and the finale is simply bursting with rhythmic vitality. The Rondo brilliant, which fills out the disc, receives a surprisingly thoughtful performance – that is, it certainly gets all the showmanship that this piece usually commands, but in the slower and gentler passages, pianist and conductor bring out the delicacy of a work that often seems to lack that characteristic. None of the attentiveness to detail, though, prevents Helmchen and Herreweghe from concluding the piece with an exemplary flourish – a fitting capstone to an altogether wonderful-sounding recording.

     The sound is excellent as well in Marc Minkowski’s new Handel recording with Les Musiciens du Louvre-Grenoble, but for somewhat different reasons. This is not an SACD, but it is nevertheless an especially clear-sounding and well-balanced disc, and that is directly attributable to Minkowski’s extremely careful attention to detail and willingness to deviate from established performance practice when he believes he has found a more effective way to present parts of the Water Music. Thus, Handel’s double-dotting tends to be accentuated almost to the point of overstatement, and slow sections are generally followed by fast ones that are so quick as to seem like dance tunes. This is not what Handel intended – this was, after all, incidental music for barge cruises on the Thames, and was supposed to be eminently listenable while remaining in the background and not distracting the royal party. But the music sounds simply marvelous this way. At times, it is understandable to wonder whether the horns can possibly keep up with the tempos on which Minkowski insists, but they always do, and quite well, too. True, a few of the more stately sections of the music seem a trifle rushed at Minkowski’s pace; but the juxtaposition of the unusually speedy dances with the exceptionally well-paced slower ones produces an ebb and flow that is a delight to hear. And individual movements carry genuine surprises, such as the raucous Minuet of the suite in F, the nearly Mendelssohnian scurrying of the Rigaudon of the suite in G, and the exceptionally stately Lentement of the suite in D. The Water Music is nicely complemented by the overture to Rodrigo, Handel’s first Italian opera. This overture is actually an eight-movement suite in its own right, and its less-familiar music sounds just as good in Minkowski’s performance as does the well-known Water Music – which is to say that the CD as a whole sounds simply splendid.

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