March 07, 2013


Bach: Suites Nos. 1-3. Hopkinson Smith, theorbo. Naïve. $16.99.

Bach: Suites Nos. 4-6. Hopkinson Smith, lute. Naïve. $16.99.

Bach: Harpsichord Concerto No. 2; C.P.E. Bach: Harpsichord Concerto in D, Wq 43/2; Johann Christian Bach: Piano Concertos, Op. 7, Nos. 3 and 5. Anastasia Injushina, piano; Hamburger Camerata conducted by Ralf Gothóni. Ondine. $16.99.

Brahms: Symphony No. 1; Martinů: Symphony No. 4. Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR conducted by Klaus Tennstedt. ICA Classics. $16.99.

Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 4 and 7. Academy of St. Martin in the Fields conducted by Joshua Bell. Sony. $11.99.

     Hopkinson Smith is a revelation, and his performances are revelatory. He has now transcribed all six Bach cello suites for lute/German theorbo (the latter being a specific form of the theorbo, itself a different form of what is usually thought of as a typical lute); and his performances are so masterful that they lend cachet to the entire field of musical transcription – an area that has become tarnished over the years but was much in vogue in Bach’s own time. The music here is old and will be familiar to many, but Smith’s transcriptions and his handling of the suites are altogether new and utterly delightful on many levels – one of which is his unhesitating willingness to pick up the pace of many of the dance movements, reflecting the different sounds and means of sound production of plucked instruments compared with bowed ones.  Bach himself transcribed one of these suites, No. 5 in C minor, BWV 1011, but Bach’s transcription to G minor (BWV 995) has some playability issues, as Smith points out in his booklet notes to the Naïve CD containing it. Smith has therefore transposed the transcription up a tone to A minor, in which key it lies much better on the instrument and sounds simply wonderful. This is the oldest recording here, dating to 1980, and uses a Nico van der Waals lute. Suites Nos. 4 and 5 were recorded in 1992 using a Joël van Lennep lute. Both these modern instruments are faithful reproductions of Baroque models, and Hopkinson handles them with the consummate skill of someone as comfortable in historical performance practice as it is possible to be. The wonderfully bouncy first gavotte of Suite No. 6, just to cite one example among many, is a sheer delight.  Suites Nos. 1-3 are newly recorded using a 13-course van Lennep German theorbo, an instrument whose greater body size and longer string length produce a fuller sound than that of other lutes – a sound that Smith argues is more appropriate in the first three suites. Academic and musicological discussions aside, Smith proves his point simply by performing the suites magnificently, with such skill and understanding that it is tempting to regard his transcriptions of these old works as altogether new pieces of music, created on an old and still very sturdy foundation.

     The mixture of old and new is less successful in the (***) CD of Bach family concertos played on a modern piano by Anastasia Injushina. There is no need to rehash the eternal argument as to whether these works are better played on the instruments for which they were written or can sound equally good on modern ones. The fact is that they have long been performed both ways and will no doubt continue to be. But it is also a fact that performers using modern instruments would do well to bow to the time in which the composers lived and play in accordance with it, to the extent possible. Injushina does not do this – she is quite content to use the full resources of a modern piano to bring out the solo power and virtuosity inherent in these pieces. The problem is that it is not inherent to this extent. The J.S. and C.P.E. Bach works here were written for harpsichord, a plucked instrument whose notes do not naturally sustain—and therefore an instrument well-suited to contrapuntal writing. Injushina’s modern piano has a much larger sound and one in which sustained notes are the norm, and she makes no real attempt to downplay its characteristics to have the solo part conform to the primus inter pares ideal of the Baroque concerto. Therefore, these works are overweighted toward the solo parts – especially so because the Hamburger Camerata under Ralf Gothóni provides properly light, even delicate accompaniment.  The J.C. Bach concertos fare somewhat better: they were written for the early fortepiano (and are in fact among the first concertos created for that instrument), so they incorporate some piano features into their solo writing – not as many as Injushina introduces, but at least some. The playing on the CD is assured and very pleasant throughout, but this disc is a good argument for hearing these works on the instruments for which the composers wrote them.

     The balance of new and old on a new ICA Classics release of symphonies conducted by Klaus Tennstedt (1926-1998) is of a different kind. The release itself is new – this is its first worldwide availability (it was released previously only in Japan). The performances are old, the Brahms dating to 1976 and the Martinů to 1973. More interestingly, while the Brahms First exists in other Tennstedt recordings, the Martinů is new to his discography – and is by far the better performance here.  The craggy, dissonant, intense, rhythmically complex Martinů Symphony No. 4 must have had some special attraction for Tennstedt, because he pulls out all the stops in this studio recording.  The work comes across splendidly, propelling listeners through a series of emotional hither-and-yon moments that eventually yield an altogether satisfying conclusion. And the Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR plays excellently, responding tremendously adeptly to the music’s moods as well as to Tennstedt’s direction.  Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the Brahms First, which was recorded live. Except for a nicely scaled finale, this is a disappointing performance, stolid and rather flaccid through its first three movements, played perfectly well but without real bite or very much warmth. Tennstedt seems to have far greater affinity for the Martinů than the Brahms – indeed, he was never particularly well-known as a Brahms conductor, and simply does not bring much to the music. On balance, this is a (+++) disc that will certainly be attractive to listeners interested in the Martinů and those wanting to hear more of Tennstedt’s conducting – but they should be prepared to be disappointed in his handling here of Brahms’ First.

     But there is no disappointment whatsoever in the (++++) Sony recording in which violinist Joshua Bell is heard for the first time in his new position as music director of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields – and performs as its concertmaster as well. The orchestra has dropped its hyphens (it used to be the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, conforming to the name of the Anglican church in Westminster), but what is really new here is Bell’s appearance in his conductor’s role – and what is old and quite familiar is the music.  Bell, like Hopkinson Smith, provides his own booklet notes, offering a personal perspective on what he and the orchestra perform on this CD, although without Smith’s erudition and with an even-more-personal slant. (And the Sony booklet contains some bizarrely incorrect movement timings – 12-and-a-half minutes for the Allegretto of the Seventh and four minutes for its scherzo?) What really matters, of course, is whether Bell can translate his professed love of these symphonies into compelling performances. And the answer is an emphatic yes. There is an ebullience to the Fourth that conductors rarely bring out, a sort of Jovian good humor that is coupled highly effectively with the work’s many elegant instrumental and structural touches – this symphony was, after all, written after the “Eroica,” and this performance shows it as a distinct advance beyond its larger and more-famous predecessor. The contrast between the bounce of the first movement and the relaxed sweetness that pervades the second is particularly well handled here.  And the finale is simply splendid, with verve and spirit in the scurrying strings – and just enough bubbling from the bassoons to lend the movement some Haydnesque levity.  The Seventh opens with speed and celebratory enthusiasm and continues with a second movement that first whispers its beauty and then proclaims it forcefully.  A propulsive scherzo then leads to a finale that is all brightness and rhythmic vitality, with fine playing and lovely instrumental highlights. This music may be old, but in performances as well-played, well-balanced and well-thought-out as this one, it is quite clear why Beethoven’s symphonies are considered ever-new.

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