January 13, 2011


Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto in E Minor; Tchaikovsky: Trio for Piano, Violin and Cello—first movement. Isaac Stern, violin; Israel Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Leonard Bernstein; Vladimir Horowitz, piano; Mstislav Rostropovich, cello. Sony. $11.98.

Bach: Harpsichord Concertos Nos. 1 and 5; English Suite No. 3; “Ich ruf zu Dir, Herr Jesu Christ” (arr. Busoni); “Nun freut euch, lieben Christen gmein” (arr. Kempff); “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” (arr. Hess). Simone Dinnerstein, piano; Kammerorchester Staatskapelle Berlin. Sony. $11.98.

Savage Nightingale. Darynn Zimmer, soprano; Eliot Fisk, guitar; Rex Benincasa, percussion; Jed Distler, piano. Labor Records. $16.99.

Mahler: Symphony No. 4; Rückert-Lieder. Magdalena Kožená, mezzo-soprano; Lucerne Festival Orchestra conducted by Claudio Abbado. EuroArts DVD. $24.99.

     Sometimes the primary reason to buy a CD is not the music it contains but the soloist highlighted on the disc. That is surely the case for a new release of two old performances, one of them partial, featuring violinist Isaac Stern. Entitled “Keeping the Doors Open,” the CD of Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky honors the 90th anniversary of Stern’s birth (he died in 2001) and the 50th anniversary of Stern’s successful effort to save Carnegie Hall, whose closing and demolition is now unimaginable but was a real possibility in 1960 until Stern – abetted by Eleanor Roosevelt, Leonard Bernstein, Pablo Casals, Vladimir Horowitz, Dame Myra Hess, Jascha Heifetz and others – spearheaded a movement to preserve the building and keep the concert space open. That bit of history provides a good marketing impetus for this CD, but in fact the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto performance heard here was not recorded in Carnegie Hall but in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv – and not in 1960 but in 1967. The performance, which is a very good if not truly outstanding one (the Israel Philharmonic provides fine but not especially noteworthy accompaniment), has never been released digitally before, and some collectors may well want it for that reason. More will be interested in it for Stern’s lovely handling of the solo part. And surely some will want to hear Stern, Horowitz and Rostropovich play Tchaikovsky, in a performance that was recorded at Carnegie Hall (in 1976). This is a wonderful rendition of the Pezzo elegiaco first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio, but it is only the first movement, so the recording is as frustrating as it is impressive. The whole disc, although expertly played, cannot be recommended for the music on it – rather, it is a collector’s item for Stern aficionados, who will also surely enjoy the period photos included in the CD’s booklet.

     Simone Dinnerstein’s new Bach CD is a feast for her fans but, again, not a disc to be chosen strictly on the basis of the repertoire. The two harpsichord concertos played here (and coyly described as “keyboard” concertos) sound quite lovely, but not quite idiomatic, in Dinnerstein’s carefully considered recording. Bach’s contrapuntal lines are the key to his music, and the harpsichord’s lack of a sustaining pedal helps bring those lines out clearly and cleanly; but the piano’s struck (rather than plucked) strings and pedal arrangement create sonic blurring that softens Bach’s lines, muddies his fugues and generally makes the music, for all its wonders, sound like something other than what Bach intended it to be. This does not mean that Dinnerstein and other pianists inevitably do Bach an injustice in their playing – indeed, Dinnerstein, although she does not eschew pedal use, is less focused on it than are some other pianists, and the music benefits to the extent that she holds back. The concertos, thanks to the light touch of the orchestral accompaniment, come off quite well here; the English Suite No. 3 rather less so. The short, well-known works that fill out the CD, in their well-known arrangements by noted pianists of the past, sound less like Bach and more like encores, which is how they are usually played today and more or less how they function here. Dinnerstein has a good sense of Bach’s style and a better sense of effective piano presentation; this CD lives up to its somewhat odd title, “Bach: A Strange Beauty,” because its beauties are indeed rather odd in the context of Bach’s music and his time. The disc will please Dinnerstein’s fans even though it is scarcely a first choice for the Bach works it contains.

     The title of Savage Nightingale makes it clear that this CD is all about its performers – in particular, soprano Darynn Zimmer – more than about the music. The album title itself is an English translation of the name of one of the songs here, “Rossignolet sauvage.” Zimmer is classically trained and often sings opera; her soprano is pleasant and well-modulated. But this album falls squarely in “crossover” territory. There is some flamenco: “El Café de Chinitas” and “Anda Jaleo!” There is a Native American song: “From the Land of the Sky-blue Water.” There is medieval French love music, too – in short, the 14 tracks offer an assortment of material in various languages, from various time periods. Zimmer’s voice is what pulls everything together – that and the arrangements for guitar, piano and percussion (guitarist Eliot Fisk is, like Zimmer, classically trained). There is little connection among the songs, although several are among the 300 composed by Charles Wakefield Cadman (1881-1946). This is strictly a CD for listeners who have heard and enjoyed Zimmer’s voice already – whether in opera or in other music – and would like to listen to her interpretations of a variety of short works in multiple styles but similar arrangements.

     Vocal interpretation is also the main reason people will be interested in the new Lucerne Festival DVD featuring Claudio Abbado conducting Mahler. The real attraction here is not so much Abbado – although he does a generally fine job with the Symphony No. 4 and the accompaniments to the Rückert-Lieder – but Czech mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená. Her handling of the songs is quite moving: hers is a voice of much richness and warmth, and she brings the sound of genuine passion to these works. Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” (“I Am Lost to the World”), in particular, is handled with sensitivity and understanding. The symphony, in contrast, is a bit of a letdown: Abbado conducts it with care, shaping the music well and letting the climaxes burst forth, especially the blazing opening of the gates of Heaven in the third movement. But in the finale, the rich texture of Kožená’s voice does not fit the music particularly well. This movement is cast as a child’s view of Heaven, brimming with naiveté and a sense of wonder (Leonard Bernstein actually tried having a boy soprano sing it). Kožená simply sounds too mature for the music: there is great beauty in her voice, but for that very reason, the magic of Mahler’s scene-setting is diminished beneath the vocal loveliness. This is by no means a bad performance, but it is one not quite in keeping with what the composer was looking for. As for the value of having this music on DVD rather than CD – that is, of course, an individual decision. There is something inherently interesting in seeing a live performance such as this one as the audience saw it – but of course home viewers do not really see it that way, since the chosen camera angles, closeups and other effects do not duplicate the concert-going experience and may even detract from enjoyment of the music. Of course, the option to close one’s eyes is always there – but it is there as well when listening to a CD or, for that matter, when attending a concert.

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