July 10, 2014
(++++) LOOKING BACK, AND AHEAD
Schubert: Piano Quintet in A, “Trout”; Piano Trio in E-flat, “Notturno”; Piano Quartet in F. David Lefèvre, violin; Christophe Gaugué, viola; Guillaume Paoletti, cello; Eckhard Rudolph, bass; Nathalie Juchors, piano. Rewind. $9.99.
Johann Strauss Jr.: Tritsch-Tratsch Polka; “Die Fledermaus” Overture and Czárdas; Nordseebilder Waltz; Im Sturmschritt Polka; Neue Pizzicato-Polka; Perpetuum mobile; Voices of Spring Waltz; “Der Zigeunerbaron” Overture; On the Beautiful Blue Danube; Egyptian March; Éljen a Magyar! Polka; Furioso-Polka, quasi Galopp. Anima Eterna Brugge conducted by Jos van Immerseel. Rewind. $9.99.
Bach: The Art of Fugue; Komm Süsser Tod; Pachelbel: Canon in D; Chaconnes in F and D; Chorale Preludes. Barbara Harbach, organ. MSR Classics. $19.95 (2 CDs).
Beethoven: Symphony No. 3; Brahms: Tragic Overture; Schoenberg: Gurre-Lieder—Orchestral Interlude and Song of the Wood Dove. Mihoko Fujimura, mezzo-soprano; Lucerne Festival Orchestra conducted by Claudio Abbado. Accentus Music DVD. $24.99.
Welcome Yule! Choral Favorites for Christmas. Sursum Corda conducted by Lester Seigel. MSR Classics. $12.95.
First-class re-releases can often give listeners a chance to hear high-quality performances at lower prices than the original issues commanded – and such re-releases are just what the Rewind label offers. Its new Schubert and Johann Strauss Jr. discs both include performances from 1999 that originally appeared on the Zig-Zag Territories label, and both recordings stand up quite well to newer ones. The “Trout” quintet gets an expansive reading here, with a particularly broad first movement that contrasts well with a very speedy and intense (indeed, slightly too intense) third-movement Scherzo. The “Trout” variations themselves are nicely handled, although the final Allegro giusto is something of a letdown, as it frequently is: this conclusion is a problematical one for many performers (comparable as a challenge to the difficult-to-negotiate finale of Nielsen’s Symphony No. 3, although the reasons for the difficulties are different). David Lefèvre, Christophe Gaugué, Guillaume Paoletti, Eckhard Rudolph and Nathalie Juchors play the whole quintet very well, but in the finale seem not quite sure of how to have the music be more than an appendix to the rest of the work. This is nevertheless a very fine performance, and it is well complemented by the single posthumous “Notturno” movement (played by Juchors, Lefèvre and Paoletti) and the two-movement Piano Quartet D. 487 – the latter offering a particularly effective contrast between its Adagio opening and the Rondo concertante that follows.
As for the Strauss disc, it offers some genuinely intriguing approaches to music that is mostly (but not entirely) familiar, with Anima Eterna Brugge under Jos van Immerseel often choosing surprising tempos (in the contrasting fast and slow sections of the overture to Die Fledermaus, among other places) and mixing highly familiar music with works that sound as if they ought to be much better known than they are: Nordseebilder Waltz, Im Sturmschritt Polka and Furioso-Polka, quasi Galopp, in particular. This is small-ensemble Strauss, with all the clarity of line, vivacity and excellent balance that the best small groups bring to this music. The integration of brass and timpani with strings is particularly felicitous: nothing overwhelms anything else, and the cooperative nature of the whole endeavor comes through strongly and very much to the music’s benefit. The wordless chorus in the Egyptian March is a particular treat. Still, as in the Schubert disc, there are matters here worthy of a nitpick or two, the biggest being the players’ lack of comfort with or sensitivity to some of the distinctly Viennese rhythmic snap that is so noticeable when these works are played by the Vienna Philharmonic and similar groups. Whether that familiarity really represents authenticity, though, is an open question, and certainly this disc provides a completely valid and often unusually thoughtful approach to music that is so much more than “merely” for dancing. Incidentally, Rewind has an attractive way of indicating that its releases are in fact re-releases: each CD looks like a vinyl record, with a colored circular portion in the middle surrounded by a black outer section that, in the days when vinyl dominated, would have been the grooves from which the music was reproduced.
Barbara Harbach’s recordings of Bach and Pachelbel date back even farther than the Rewind offerings, having been made between 1983 and 1990 on two C.B. Fisk organs in New York state, one in Rochester and the other in Buffalo. The MSR Classics release is a new digital remastering of Gasparo Records material, and it is quite well done both technically and musically. Harbach has a fine sense of the shaping of Bach’s The Art of Fugue, choosing registrations carefully and allowing the music to move from the delicate to the sinewy and back. She plays with sureness, understanding and a strong sense of Bach’s style, using well-chosen tempos and allowing the various fugal lines to emerge, blend and subside with what feels like inevitability. Organ performances of The Art of Fugue can sometimes feel overwhelming because of an instrument’s sheer sonority, but Harbach’s do not: she manages to provide both intimacy and grandeur, and at the same time to make it clear that The Art of Fugue is far from an academic exercise in musical form. And the other, less-familiar material in this two-CD set is equally well played and equally intriguing, albeit in different ways. There is a veritable plethora of Pachelbel here, and it is very, very welcome indeed, since for most listeners Pachelbel has been reduced to a single super-well-known canon (often called the Pachelbel canon, as if he wrote no others). It is inevitable that Harbach plays this work (in an arrangement by S. Drummond Wolff), but it is scarcely as interesting to hear her reading (although it is a very fine one) as it is to hear two chaconnes and no fewer than 13 chorale preludes by Pachelbel. The preludes have fascinations aplenty, from the two separate ones on Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her to those from the Psalms, on Nun lob, mein Seel den Herren (Psalm 103), An Wasserflüssen Babylon (Psalm 137) and Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott (Psalm 46). Pachelbel comes from the generation before Bach, and it is fascinating to compare his chorale preludes and other music with works in similar forms that Bach wrote some years later. But an academic comparison is scarcely the point of Harbach’s performance and scarcely necessary to enjoy it. The music here, from the familiar to the very unfamiliar indeed, is wonderful in its own right, played with high skill and considerable understanding, and a notable addition to the collection of any listener interested in the highest reaches of the high Baroque.
The new Accentus Music DVD featuring Claudio Abbado and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra is not a re-release, but it looks back to the past in a different way. Abbado died in January, and this Summer 2013 recording presents his final appearance at the Lucerne Festival. The live recording is notable primarily for its testamentary value, although the performances are quite good, with mezzo-soprano Mihoko Fujimjra handling an excerpt from Schoenberg’s Gurre-Lieder effectively and with Abbado leading the orchestra in Brahms and Beethoven with his customary attentiveness, skill and intensity. The second-movement funeral march of the “Eroica” seems, in retrospect, especially shattering, but whether it would appear that way if Abbado were still living is another matter. It is simply too tempting to read more into this movement – and into the Tragic Overture – than is really there: Abbado’s death after a long illness was certainly sad but scarcely tragic, and his life was anything but funereal. Fans of Abbado will certainly want this DVD for both the quality of the music-making and the chance to see the conductor in performance near the end of his life. They will deem it a (++++) production, but judged strictly on the merits of the very fine but not especially revelatory interpretations – and in light of the inevitable distractions associated with watching a concert at home while the director of the video determines what you see, when and for how long – a (+++) rating is more objective. There is nothing wrong with any performance here, and a great deal right, but had this not been Abbado’s final Lucerne Festival appearance and the last audiovisual record of his podium manner, the DVD would be considered simply a very fine but scarcely earth-shattering chance to see a first-rate conductor and very good orchestra handle standard-repertoire pieces with a skill born of long experience and considerable knowledge.
Sometimes a CD looks back and forth simultaneously – a Christmas-themed one released in the middle of the year, for example. That would be Welcome Yule! – the new MSR Classics recording by Sursum Corda, under Lester Seigel, of 16 Christmas classics and favorites. Release date aside, this is a pleasant (+++) recording that is very well performed but mixes types of music rather oddly and not entirely satisfyingly: Bruckner rubs metaphorical shoulders with Charpentier, and both mingle somewhat uneasily with Angels We Have Heard on High, Jingle Bells, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, and Silent Night – four favorites that themselves fit inevitably but not entirely seamlessly on the same disc. The individual tracks are filled with vocal pleasures – this is a very fine ensemble indeed – although a full hour of Christmas music tends to cloy at pretty much any time of year. Sursum Corda means “hearts lifted” in Latin (often rendered less accurately, even by the Alabama-based chorus itself, as “lift up your hearts”); certainly there is much that is uplifting on this disc – and certainly everything on it is performed with feeling and the sort of warmth that is particularly welcome during the Christmas season. Anyone seeking a touch of winter wonderland and the positive experience that the Christmas story provides will find it here, at any time of year.