March 31, 2011


Beethoven: The 11 Overtures. Gewandhaus Orchester Leipzig conducted by Kurt Masur. PentaTone. $29.99 (2 SACDs).

Mozart: Symphonies Nos. 39 and 41. English Baroque Soloists conducted by John Eliot Gardiner. SDG. $18.99.

Holst: Orchestral Works, Volume 2—Beni Mora; Japanese Suite; The Planets. Manchester Chamber Choir and BBC Philharmonic conducted by Sir Andrew Davis. Chandos. $19.99 (SACD).

Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade; The Tale of Tsar Saltan—Suite; Flight of the Bumblebee. Seattle Symphony conducted by Gerard Schwarz. Naxos. $8.99.

Biber: Mystery Sonatas. Julia Wedman, violin; Felix Denk, cello and viola da gamba; Lucas Harris, theorbo and archlute; Charlotte Nediger, organ and harpsichord; Julia Seager-Scott, harp. Sono Luminus. $24.99 (2 CDs).

Erwin Schulhoff: Concertino for Flute, Viola and Double Bass; Sonata for Flute and Piano; Sextet for Strings. András Adorján, flute; Walter Küssner, viola; Klaus Stoll, double bass; Yumiko Urabe, piano; Philharmonisches Streichsextett Berlin (Rüdiger Liebermann and Bernhard Hartog, violins; Walter Küssner and Matthew Hunter, violas; Georg Faust and Ansgar Schneider, cellos). Klassik aus Berlin. $18.99

Florent Schmitt: La Tragédie de Salomé—Suite (piano version); Ombres; Mirages. Vincent Larderet, piano. Naxos. $8.99.

Cirque. Céline Ricci, soprano; Daniel Lockert, piano. Sono Luminus. $16.99.

Verdi Opera Scenes. Dmitri Hvorostovsky, baritone; Sondra Radvanovsky, soprano. Philharmonia of Russia conducted by Constantine Orbelian. Delos. $16.99.

     The proliferation of CD labels, many of them specialized, provides a welcome opportunity both to hear new versions of familiar works and to explore little-known or unknown byways of classical music. Or sometimes to hear old versions of familiar works, as in the recent PentaTone release of Kurt Masur’s recordings of all 11 Beethoven overtures with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. These performances date to 1972-74, when Leipzig was part of what was then East Germany, and are testimony to the continued excellence of the arts even in one of the world’s most repressive nations and at a time when international tensions were high. Masur and the orchestra bring a sure sense of style and some very fine playing to the four overtures to Fidelio (the one now used at the opera’s opening, plus Leonore Nos. 1-3) on one disc; the other contains Coriolan, Egmont, King Stephen, The Creatures of Prometheus, The Consecration of the House; Zur Namensfeier [Nameday], and The Ruins of Athens. The best performances here are of the more weighty overtures – a few of the lesser ones, including King Stephen, The Creatures of Prometheus and The Ruins of Athens, get rather short shrift. And The Consecration of the House is somewhat lacking in grandeur. Still, these are generally very worthy readings, although the remastered sound – even in SACD form – is somewhat thin and a touch shrill.

     John Eliot Gardiner’s readings of Mozart’s Symphonies Nos. 39 and 41 sound very good indeed, even though this is a live recording, slightly cleaned up from a version made during a concert in February 2006 and offered for sale to the audience at the end of that evening. No. 39 generally comes off more effectively here than the weightier No. 41, which has plenty of bounce but is a touch lacking in emotional depth. No. 39 is excellent, however, with the final movement – taken at quite a quick pace – being a standout, showing Mozart’s continued affinity for Haydn and in fact coming across as closer to the works of the older composer than it usually does. The music here is scarcely unfamiliar, and performances by orchestras of Classical-era size are no longer unusual, but Gardiner’s players take to the music and its style with aplomb, with the woodwinds being particularly impressive. The booklet notes about the difficulty of doing an instant-turnaround classical CD are quite interesting, too.

     Holst’s The Planets is very much a standard-repertoire item these days, but his other orchestral works are heard much less often, and it is good that Chandos – in the second volume of its series of Holst’s works for orchestra – has paired the well-known with pieces with which listeners are less likely to be acquainted. Sir Andrew Davis’ approach to The Planets is what might be called mainstream: well paced, well played and well structured, but nothing really special – a kind of middle-of-the-road interpretation. “Saturn” and “Neptune” are the most impressive movements here, the latter – the final movement of the suite – featuring lovely female voices and excellent orchestral sounds, none of which ever rises above pianissimo. Holst’s Japanese Suite, a set of six short movements written about the same time as The Planets, is more interestingly handled, its Orientalisms (which are rather Westernized) neatly brought out and its careful scoring showcased very well. Beni Mora, a set of three dances that Holst called an “Oriental Suite,” also features a somewhat Westernized handling of its material, and that material is less interesting than is the music of the Japanese Suite. But here too there is a combination of fine playing and close attention to some very interesting orchestral detail – a winning combination.

     Gerard Schwarz’ handling of the familiar symphonic suite, Scheherazade, is, like Davis’ way with The Planets, almost determinedly middle-of-the-road. But the Seattle Symphony never really digs into this music as the BBC Philharmonic does into Holst’s, so this CD gets a (+++) rating. The pacing of Scheherazade is fine, and the solo violin playing by Maria Larionoff is lovely, but this big, brassy and deliberately overwrought music simply sounds too controlled here, with the quietest movement (“The Young Princess and the Princess”) being the most effective and the dramatic finale lacking the power that it should have. There is also not a great deal of color to Schwarz’ handling of excerpts from the opera, The Tale of Tsar Saltan­ – a three-movement suite and the highly familiar Flight of the Bumblebee. Everything is well played, with the “rocking of the sea” music in the first movement of the suite especially effective, but nothing comes across with a feeling of extra attentiveness or a strong sense that either conductor or orchestra is highly involved in the performance.

     Involvement is pervasive, though, in Julia Wedman’s (++++) recording of Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber’s Mystery Sonatas. These are astonishing works by one of the most well-known violinists of his time (1644-1704), relying on scordatura tuning to produce effects impossible on a normally tuned violin. The 15 sonatas and following Passacaglia all require different tunings, and as Wedman explains in her notes on each piece, the effect on the performer can be quite extreme, to the point that certain sonatas can be genuinely unpleasant to play (No. 8, “The Crowning with Thorns”), while others can have tunings that seem impossible to use (No 11, “The Resurrection,” in which two strings are tuned to G and two to D, and the two middle strings are crossed, providing a visual reminder to the player of this central mystery of Catholicism). In addition to being brilliantly created to showcase the violin’s capabilities, and very difficult to perform, the sonatas are highly varied in mood, and Wedman takes listeners through everything from joy to despair to wonder in her finely honed, beautifully played readings. Her selection of accompaniments is a highly personal one, including a harp in No. 13, “Pentecost,” with each choice of continuo highlighting Wedman’s approach to a particular sonata. Biber’s Mystery Sonatas do not sound as strange to the listener as they feel to the performer, and it certainly seems that the devout composer was writing music designed to focus the player – perhaps even more than those listening – on the mysteries told in the Rosary. But even without the religious intensity of Biber and his contemporaries, even without a full knowledge and understanding of the programmatic nature of this music, these sonatas – which collectively last well over two hours – stand among the pinnacles of violin writing and playing, and Wedman’s performance is a beautiful, wonderfully played and highly involved one from start to finish.

     It is arguable whether the Mystery Sonatas should be considered well-known or little-known – violinists certainly know them as among the great heights to scale with their instruments, but the works are not often performed in recital, which the central importance of scordatura tuning would make nearly impossible with a single instrument. But there is certainly no question which category the music of Erwin Schulhoff falls into: “little-known” would be an exaggeration, with “nearly unknown” being far more accurate. On the basis of a new, very well-played recording of three chamber works, this near-total neglect of Schulhoff (1894-1942) is a real shame, since Schulhoff has some fascinating musical ideas and some very interesting ways of working them through. It is an exaggeration to call him Brückenbauer in die Neue Zeit (“Bridge-builder in the New Age”), the title of this CD, because he was more of a picker-and-chooser among styles, and if he built a bridge, it was one to nowhere – he was not particularly influential either in his Czech homeland or elsewhere, either musically or politically (a devoted Communist, he went so far in his later years as to create a musical version of The Communist Manifesto). Schulhoff’s career peaked in the 1920s, the decade of composition of all three works on this CD. Each piece displays a different and fascinating side of the composer. The Concertino (1925) shows considerable skill in writing for an unusual instrumental combination while giving each instrument its due (the flute even alternates with piccolo) – and also focusing on folk music, which imbues the work. The Sonata (1927) is an essay in changing moods and the use of different 20th-century approaches, sounding now impressionistic and now jazzy. And the Sextet (1924) is deep and sophisticated, including polytonality, Mahlerian harmonies, considerable intensity and a pervasive sense of loss. The music of Schulhoff – a Jew whose life was claimed not by the Nazis but by pneumonia, shortly before he was to emigrate to Soviet Russia – certainly deserves to be heard more frequently.

     It is hard to make the same assertion about the works of Florian Schmitt (1870-1958) – at least the piano works played by Vincent Larderet. Schmitt was prolific and a skilled orchestrator – Stravinsky admired the full-length 1907 version of The Tragedy of Salomé, a ballet including vocal elements – but Schmitt’s piano works, even when played as well as they are here, come across as mainly derivative, even though they are certainly well made. The composer’s own piano version of the suite he created from The Tragedy of Salomé here gets its world première recording, and it certainly lies well on the piano and contains a fair amount of drama. But the orchestral color that Schmitt brought to the ballet is missing, and in its absence, the work sounds somewhat dated and not especially original. Ombres (“Shadows”) is an extended three-movement suite that is reminiscent of Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit, but not as cleverly worked or as interesting to hear, although it certainly poses technical challenges for the pianist. And Mirages is a bit of impressionism in the Debussy mold, combined with – again – some highly virtuosic requirements, which Larderet handles very well. The disc gets a (+++) rating for very fine playing and some moments of real interest in the music – moments that, however, are far from pervasive.

     Performer-focused vocal collections seem equally likely to include a mixture of better-known and less-known works, or a set of pieces that are very well-known indeed. Two new (+++) CDs provide one example of each approach. Cirque is an all-French disc, devoted principally to the music of Henri Saugnet (1901-1989): the CD’s title comes from a song of his that here gets its world première recording, and Céline Ricci also sings his extended cycle La Voyante and a piece called Le Chemin des Forains (another world première). Saugnet wrote some interesting music – he is principally known for his ballets – and there is considerable expressiveness and some pleasant lightheartedness sprinkled through the pieces that Ricci sings. But they scarcely come across as major 20th-century works. The other composers heard here are better known: Darius Milhaud (represented by Trois Poèmes, which is lovingly sung, Le Tango des Fratellini, Caramel Mou and Six Chansons de Théâtre, which go nicely with some of Saugnet’s music); Erik Satie (Rag-time Parade); Francis Poulenc (Cocardes); and Georges Auric (Huit Poèmes de Jean Cocteau). Daniel Lockert ably accompanies Ricci, whose voice is well suited to this music and who gets to what emotional core the works have – although some of them do not have much of one. A specialty item for listeners interested in 20th-century French songs, Cirque nicely combines works of greater and lesser familiarity within that category.

     Verdi Opera Scenes is almost but not quite all Verdi – it also includes three “encores” from Dvořák’s Rusalka, Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Puccini’s Tosca (the inevitable “Vissi d’arte”). Being a live recording with orchestra, this CD has more heft than the studio recital with piano of Cirque, and its music is designed for a wider audience. There are four Verdi scenes here, all delivered with considerable intensity but all losing something by being wrenched out of context. They are Act 3, Scene 1 of Un Ballo in Maschera; Act 4, Scene 2 of Don Carlo; Act 1, Scenes 6-7 of Simon Boccanegra; and the confrontation scene from Act 4 of Il Trovatore. Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Sondra Radvanovsky both have full, rich voices in their respective ranges, and both are very good vocal actors, so the scenes come through with Verdi’s typical melodramatic flair. Fans of the singers, the clear target audience for this CD, will enjoy it, but it does not seem designed to reach out beyond the core group already interested in hearing these particular voices in this particular repertoire.

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