Orff: Carmina Burana; Beethoven: Leonore Overture No. 3; Handel, arr. Goossens: Hallelujah Chorus. Sally Matthews, soprano; Lawrence Brownlee, tenor; Christian Gerhaher, baritone; Rundfunkchor Berlin, Knabenchor des Staats- und Domchores Berlin, and Berliner Philharmoniker conducted by Sir Simon Rattle. EuroArts DVD. $24.99.
Brahms: Symphony No. 1; Wagner: “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg,” Prelude to Act III; Elgar: Cello Concerto. Alisa Weilerstein, cello; Berliner Philharmoniker conducted by Daniel Barenboim. EuroArts DVD. $24.99.
Rachmaninoff: The Bells; Vocalise, orch. Serebrier; Shostakovich: Festive Overture; Glazunov: Chant de ménestrel; Mussorgsky: Khovanshchina, Entr’acte from Act IV, arr. Stokowski. Lyubov Petrova, soprano; Andrei Popov, tenor; Sergei Leiferkus, baritone; Moscow State Chamber Choir; Wen-Sinn Yang, cello; Russian National Orchestra conducted by José Serebrier. Warner. $18.99.
Christmas at America’s First Cathedral. Janice Chandler Eteme, soprano; Baltimore Choral Arts Chorus and Orchestra conducted by Tom Hall. Gothic Records. $16.99.
Astor Piazzolla: Sinfonía Buenos Aires; Concerto for Bandoneón, String Orchestra and Percussion, “Aconcagua”; Las Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas, arr. Leonid Desyatnikov for violin and strings. Daniel Binelli, bandoneón; Tianwa Yang, violin; Nashville Symphony Orchestra conducted by Giancarlo Guerrero. Naxos. $8.99.
Gloria Coates: String Quartet No. 9; Sonata for Violin Solo; Lyric Suite for Piano Trio. Kreutzer Quartet (Peter Sheppard Skærved and Mihailo Trandafilovski, violins; Morgan Goff, viola; Neil Hyde, cello); Roderick Chadwick, piano. Naxos. $8.99.
With gift-giving season moving rapidly into high gear, this is a good time to consider recordings that almost seem designed to be gifted – ones whose attractions do not necessarily lie in the repertoire or the performers, but in the overall presentation and the chance to experience something new, or different, or resembling an actual concert rather than a studio production. Two wonderful-to-watch EuroArts DVDs are perfect examples. Even if not intended as gifts – they do, after all, include serious readings of significant music by top-flight performers – they have a kind of “gift” feeling about them, since there is really no compelling reason to have this particular repertoire in visual form rather than on CD. Neither DVD is an opera, after all; and the directors’ choices of camera angles and close-ups make the visual experiences very different from what a listener would have in a concert hall. The DVDs do show how distinct concert programming is from repertoire designed to be recorded. These concerts offer disparate music with little if any relationship between one piece and the next; the planning is experiential. Recordings, on the other hand, tend to choose complementary works, if not by the same composer then by ones whose creations seem to blend well. Blending is scarcely the objective in the concerts on these hour-and-a-half DVDs – contrast is what is sought.
So listeners/viewers get a well-known, full-orchestra, strongly accented curtain raiser by Beethoven (from Sir Simon Rattle) or Wagner (from Daniel Barenboim), and then more extended fare. Rattle conducts Orff’s Carmina Burana in this 2004 concert with considerable enthusiasm and fine attention to the deliberately strong, even repetitious rhythms throughout, and the singers all handle their roles skillfully if perhaps a tad too stolidly – a wink and a nudge can make the ribald lyrics more effective. Sir Eugene Goossens’ arrangement of Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus is a bit of overkill, really – the sort of overdone production that one finds in concert halls but scarcely in well-thought-out recordings. It certainly does raise the roof, though; and the Berlin Philharmonic, as is its wont, plays splendidly and responsively. The orchestra does an excellent job for Barenboim as well – and Alisa Weilerstein’s solo performance in Elgar’s Cello Concerto, as fine as it is, must still revive painful memories for Barenboim of the astonishing way his first wife, Jacqueline du Pré (1945-1987), made the piece her own. It is true that du Pré’s version of this work remains unexcelled (her recording, conducted by Sir John Barbirolli, is a classic), but it is also true that several cellists today, including Weilerstein, have their own valid and sensitive interpretations of the concerto, and this performance, recorded earlier this year, is a very fine one. So is Barenboim’s reading of Brahms’ First Symphony, which he makes magisterial and almost, but not quite, a touch pompous. Hearing the splendid Berlin Philharmonic brass in the finale is a special joy. Neither of these DVDs contains anything definitive, or purports to, but either would make a fine seasonal present for a music-lover.
So would the live recording of the Russian National Orchestra under José Serebrier, performing an all-Russian program in the Great Hall of the Tchaikovsky Conservatory, Moscow. This hour-long presentation was the closing concert of the First International Rostropovich Festival this past March. A celebration of Russia as much as of Rostropovich (1927-2007), the concert’s centerpiece is a wonderfully shaped and extremely well played rendition of Rachmaninoff’s The Bells, giving the excellent Russian National Orchestra a chance to show off its balance, sonority and precision. The four other pieces are essentially fillers – the sorts of things that show up in concerts but are not really very substantial. The orchestra sounds particularly ebullient in Shostakovich’s well-worn and deliberately rather crude Festival Overture, while its sweetness is front and center in Serebrier’s arrangement of Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise. This is scarcely a concert for the ages, but the CD is very well performed and provides a good deal of mostly superficial pleasure that makes it a fine candidate for gift-giving.
Christmas at America’s First Cathedral is, of course, as seasonal an item as will be found anywhere – distinguished by the quality of the performances of 17 short items (including, yes, the Hallelujah Chorus) and by the inclusion of a bonus DVD, thus reversing the usual approach of packaging a DVD with a bonus CD. As usual in Christmas-themed releases, there is music here by traditional composers (not only Handel but also Mendelssohn and Berlioz), by composers not traditionally thought of as classical (Dave Brubeck, choral-music specialist John Rutter), and even by composers whose new works are here recorded for the first time (Rosephanye Powell and James Lee III). The thematic similarity of the tracks and the emphasis in most pieces on the massed chorus give the CD a seasonal sound that might approach monotony at other times of year, but that in these circumstances just comes across as pleasantly mellifluous – although, fine gift though it may be, Christmas at America’s First Cathedral is unlikely to be played frequently during the warmer times of the year.
The inclusion of new music on the Baltimore Choral Arts Christmas recording opens up the possibility of handling musical gift-giving in a somewhat different way: by using CDs to expand the recipient’s auditory horizons, even if the discs are not overtly celebratory. Either the new Astor Piazzolla CD or the one featuring music of Gloria Coates could be an excellent choice along those lines – and thanks to Naxos’ usual budget pricing, neither represents a significant financial investment in case the gift proves less successful than the giver hopes. The Piazzolla includes a violin-and-strings arrangement of the composer’s best-known piece, Four Seasons of Buenos Aires – or, as it is properly called, Las Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas. Tianwa Yang, a very fine young violinist, does an excellent job with this work, bringing out its rhythmic qualities effectively. But it is the other pieces here that really make the CD unusual and a worthy gift, with Daniel Binelli doing an excellent job playing the bandoneón in both. From the symphonic use of the tango – which Piazzolla always handled so idiomatically and interestingly – to the dramatic virtuosity that pervades the Bandoneón Concerto, this is a CD filled with exotic sounds, interesting rhythms, intense emotion and tremendous verve. And yet the Coates CD would make an equally intriguing and colorful open-your-ears present. Coates is best known as a symphonist, but the sound palette of her ninth and most recent string quartet (2007) shows a masterful way with smaller forces as well. The very considerable technique required for the Sonata for Violin Solo (2000) makes for real ear stretching (complementing the finger stretching required of the performer), and the Lyric Suite (1996) is fascinatingly spooky, the music fitting very well with its movements’ subtitles from Emily Dickinson poems (the suite itself is called “Split the Lark – and you’ll find the Music”). Both the Coates CD and the Piazzolla recording offer gift-givers and recipients alike the chance to hear serious, interesting, unusual recent music (the earliest work on either CD dates to 1951), very well performed and recorded, and with considerably more staying power than even the best overtly seasonal recording is likely to possess.